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.