Democracy to take hold at the EU?

Next month's elections for the European Parliament should have a decisive role in determining the identity of the next president of the European Commission. That at least is the theory, but as individual member states still wield enormous power in the decision-making process someone other than the official candidates could still win the day.

The European Commission president is the head of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU that functions somewhat like an embryonic European government. It's the commission president who decides who gets which portfolio. He or possibly she - though so far no woman has ever held this most powerful of EU jobs - determines the commission's policy agenda and the draft EU legislation it proposes.

The current incumbent is Portugal's José Manuel Barroso and he is now completing his second five year term. Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian premier and Flemish liberal leader, is the liberal candidate for the job, but given the division of powers in Europe the German socialist Martin Schultz and the Luxembourg Christian democrat Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured here with council president Van Rompuy) stand a far greater chance. These are the declared candidates, but there are also undeclared candidates. Take the Finnish premier Jyrki Katainen, a conservative liberal, who has just announced he's stepping down in June and is looking for an international job. Of course, the EU will not only be going in search of a new commission president. The entire European Commission needs to be renewed. So, there are vacancies galore.

The president of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament, but first has to be put forward by the European Council, the European heads of state and government, the real power brokers. The candidate of the biggest formation in the European Parliament is supposed to get first go, but not everybody is convinced the democratic process will be allowed to run its full course.  This week the European parliamentary leaders fired a shot across the bows of anybody wanting to derail the democratic process. In a joint statement the leaders of the three largest groups in the European Parliament insisted that the election of the new commission president should follow the democratic rules.

Here in Belgium where memories are long Britain's veto against former premiers Jean-Luc Dehaene and Guy Verhofstadt still causes resentment. As the leader of the EU's economic powerhouse and the Eurozone's bankroller, Germany's chancellor Merkel clearly has a say in who heads the European Commission, but any successful candidate will  have to see off British concerns he is not too federalist. People close to British premier David Cameron have already said that both Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker are too European. The road is open for an unknown compromise figure. It happened before in 2004 when Tony Blair came up with the name of a Portuguese prime minister.

This time round, as a result of treaty changes, European leaders will take their decision on whom to put to the European Parliament using the qualified majority voting system. This means that individual member states will not be able to veto a particular candidate, but if enough countries gang up against a candidate his or her chances will falter.

Unofficial candidates include conservative Christine Lagarde of the IMF and socialist Pascal Lamy, formerly of the World Trade Organisation, both French nationals. Whoever lands the top job, his or her appointment will form part of a deal that takes in a wider package of top EU jobs including that of president of the European Council and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt may not land the top job for the European liberals, surely he will be at least be offered the lowly job of a European commissioner?