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The Lessons of the EU Leadership Fight

After the European Parliament election in which fears of a populist surge proved unfounded, the European Council has now delivered a slate of highly qualified, well-chosen candidates to fill the European Union's top leadership positions. The only problem is that it may have exacerbated the EU's "democratic deficit" in the process.

BERLIN – The haggling may have been unedifying, but the candidates nominated by the European Council to lead the European Union’s governing institutions are undoubtedly impressive. If approved by the European Parliament, German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel will become president of the European Commission and Council, respectively, and Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell will serve as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Then, in November, Christine Lagarde is set to succeed Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank.

The good news is that each of these candidates would strengthen the EU at a time of global insecurity. The bad news is that the EU itself will continue to face significant challenges from within. The struggle to fill the top leadership positions resulted in the elimination of the Spitzenkandidaten process – whereby the largest party grouping in the European Parliament selects the Commission president – and the return of backroom deal-making, which many see as undemocratic. The justification for that change needs to be explained, or the EU’s credibility may suffer. After all, the Spitzenkandidaten process was introduced in 2014 to counter the perception that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit.

The leadership struggle has also intensified a clash of perspectives within – and about – the EU’s sources of legitimacy. Whereas member states with a strong parliamentary culture think the top personnel should be selected based on the results of May’s European Parliament election, others (like France) consider executive experience far more important than the link to those results. It is naturally a long process to devise a broadly accepted system for selecting EU leaders. Despite this year’s setback, the principle of the Spitzenkandidaten system should be preserved and combined in the next elections, with additional transnational lists of candidates backed by stronger trans-European party structures. Beyond that, the EU also needs to strengthen the role of the European Parliament.