Responsible government in Strasbourg and Madrid

The European parliament faces a moment of truth tonight when Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, is set to be confirmed – or not – as president of the European Commission; effectively, prime minister of the European Union.

The parliament has never rejected a nominee, although it has forced changes in some ministerial positions and on one occasion forced a government’s resignation mid-term by rejecting its budget. The confirmation process shows the EU striving for responsible government but not quite getting there.

Probably the key shortcoming is that voting is by secret ballot. MPs can therefore say one thing and do another, without being held accountable by either the electorate or their party colleagues. That’s one reason why the outcome of tonight’s vote is so unpredictable.

The other big problem concerns what happens next if a nominee is not confirmed. In an ordinary national parliament, if a government lost a vote of confidence immediately following an election, the leader of the opposition would be invited to form government instead. If no majority could be constructed for an alternative government, parliament would be dissolved and a fresh election held.

But the European parliament has no such position as leader of the opposition, and it cannot be dissolved mid-term. If von der Leyen fails to win confirmation, the onus is on the European Council – that is, the heads of government of the member states – to come up with another nominee. And while of course it would be sensible of them to listen to what the MPs want, they have other priorities of their own.

Building intergovernmental institutions is hard. The heads of government don’t want to give up power, and the bureaucrats in Brussels don’t like the idea of the parliament acting “politically” – that is, behaving like a parliament and exercising some control over the executive.

But with each term the parliament has been flexing its muscles more and more. Now, with the political groups nicely balanced, it will be interesting to see if it can seize the initiative, or whether the heads of government will be able to play one group off against another to get what they want.

It’s a striking contrast to turn to Spain, which voted a month before the EU and where Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez faces his own confirmation vote next week.

Contrary to what I (and most others) assumed at the time, Sánchez, despite his strong election result, has not so far been able to assemble a majority government. His negotiations with the far left Podemos, whose 42 seats are vital to him, have ended in failure.

I’m no fan of Podemos, but it looks to me as if Sánchez has treated them badly. A coalition government, with Podemos taking positions in cabinet, looked like the obvious way to proceed, but Sánchez seems to have tried every expedient to avoid that outcome.

But he is still pressing ahead with the vote of confidence next week. If he loses, the clock starts to run for a sixty day period, and if no other government can be formed and win a vote in that time, a fresh election has to be held. (This is what happened in 2016, and almost happened twice.)

Rather than actually getting MPs to back him, Sánchez has suggested amending the constitution to remove some of this risk – to allow a minority government to be formed and to function until parliament actually votes against it, rather than it needing to win a positive vote in its favor.

At first sight that seems reasonable, if unlikely to matter much. No Australian government, for example, needs to win a vote of confidence first up: it’s entitled to govern as soon as it’s appointed, subject to parliament’s right to express a lack of confidence in it at any time.

The difference is that Spain doesn’t have our simple vote of no confidence. Once it’s been confirmed, a Spanish government can only be voted out by a “constructive” vote of no confidence – that is, a vote that specifies an alternative government to hold office in its place.

That’s a powerful advantage for the government to have; its opponents cannot vote it out, even if they command a majority, unless they can agree on a replacement. Given that advantage, it’s entirely appropriate that the government should have to prove it has the confidence of parliament before it takes office in the first place. Otherwise there would be a major shortfall in responsible government.

Instead of tinkering with the constitution, Spain’s politicians – much like those in Strasbourg – need to work on adapting themselves to the reality of a multi-party system and building a government that reflects what the voters want.

6 thoughts on “Responsible government in Strasbourg and Madrid

  1. Thanks for the update (with links) on Spain.

    ‘… Spain’s politicians … need to work on … building a government that reflects what the voters want.’

    But how are they supposed to know what the voters want? The voters weren’t asked to vote on which government they want. How many PSOE voters would be in favour of a coalition with Podemos and how many would be against it is something we don’t know. For what it’s worth, opinion polls since the 2019 election show an increase in support for the PSOE; support for the PP is also apparently increasing, but not as steeply, so the (apparent) position of the PSOE relative to the PP (still its main rival) is improving, and so is its (apparent) position relative to Podemos. There’s no way of telling how much of that is because of Sanchez’s stubbornness negotiations with Podemos and how much despite it. If there is another election, and if the results of it reflect recent opinion polls, it seems as if it will strengthen Sanchez’s position. Of course, the opinion polls may be misleading; still, I bet Sanchez is aware of them, and may even be taking them as endorsement of his present negotiating stance–which would not be a completely irrational thing to do.

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    1. Thanks J-D. Yes, that’s fair enough; Sanchez seems to be doing relatively well out of the standoff in the polls so far, altho whether people will be so charitable if he actually forces a new election is another question. Nonetheless, since his party only got two-sevenths of the vote in April, I think it’s fair to say that the majority didn’t want a Socialist-only government.

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  2. I agree. There’s absolutely no basis for thinking that there’s a majority in favour of a single party PSOE government. However, there’s also no basis apparent for thinking that there’s a majority in favour of a PSOE-UP coalition government. If there’s no option with majority support, what then?

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    1. Well, indeed. The task is to try to compile a government that represents some reasonable aggregate of the voters’ preferences. Other things being equal, I think it’s only fair that such a government should include parties that between them received a majority of the vote, but sometimes there’s just no way of getting that to work. But I think voters expect politicians to work it out together; just throwing it back to the voters when it all gets too hard is not likely to be a popular move.

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  3. I’ve been thinking not about what should happen, but about what I know does happen, and what does happen is different in different countries. In some countries, it has nearly always happened, after a parliamentary election, that a coalition government has been formed by a combination of parties which hold a majority of seats in the parliament (which is not exactly the same as having received a majority of the votes cast in the election). In other countries, things work differently. For example, in Canada, when no single party wins a majority of seats at a general election, what has typically happened is that whichever party holds a plurality of seats has formed a minority government. As far as the evidence (that I am aware of) goes, that way of handling the situation seems to be fairly well accepted by Canadians.

    It’s also the case that what might be easy under Canadian constitutional arrangements might be hard under Spanish constitutional arrangements, but that raises the question of which kind of constitutional arrangements should be preferred, and that’s something about which people disagree. There’s no default accepted answer.

    ‘Other things being equal, I think it’s only fair that such a government should include parties that between them received a majority of the vote, but sometimes there’s just no way of getting that to work.’

    In this particular instance, then, the question, or part of it. is whether there is some way of getting a PSOE-UP coalition government to work. Considering the evidence of events of the last few days, I suspect that if asked Sanchez would say that he’s been trying to find a way to make that option work, whereas Iglesias and the rest of UP, if asked, would say that Sanchez hasn’t been trying as hard as he could. So it seems to me that there’s no way of taking sides on that question without taking sides with one of the parties. If UP says ‘We are close enough together to work together in government’ and PSOE says ‘We are too far apart to work together in government (as closely as UP wants)’, then how is one to decide which of them is right?

    (The most recent news at time of writing, for readers who may not have followed it, is that Sanchez offered to accept UP ministers in a coalition government if Iglesias wasn’t included, Iglesias and UP agreed to accept that condition, and then Sanchez made an offer of positions which UP rejected as offering them only tokens rather than a serious share of power: UP then abstained from voting in favour of a Sanchez-led government. There’s another vote coming up.)

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    1. And sure enough, Sánchez failed again on the second vote, thus setting the clock running towards another election. But both Podemos and most of the autonomists abstained rather than voting against, so they seem to be leaving the door open for further negotiations.

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