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Five days on from the election: five reflections on the Commission presidency

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That was the week that was: an odd few days where the European People’s Party won the European Parliament elections, but was also the biggest loser; and where Socialists in the Parliament backed the EPP lead candidate for the European Commissionpresidency, only for some centre-right leaders to apply the brakes in the European Council.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the EPP lead candidate, is still the frontrunner and the only person formally in the running. His chances have been boosted tanks to comments by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Friday, that she is conducting negotiations on the basis that Juncker should be President.

If those seeking to block Juncker succeed, an inter-institutional battle is on the cards

However, it is clear that a number of heads of government would like to dump him in favour of someone else. The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, has been charged with an exploratory mission to find the person – Juncker included – who can command the sufficient majority in the Parliament and European Council.

Meanwhile, five political groups in the European Parliament have backed Juncker to have a first go at building majorities in the same institutions – and if he fails, are likely to call for Martin Schulz, lead candidate of the second-placed Socialists, to have a go.

If those who want to block Juncker in the European Council succeed – and it is not a done deal yet for the former Luxembourg prime minister – an inter-institutional battle between the Parliament and European Council will be on the cards.

Here are some personal reflections on the race for the Commission presidency.

1. National leaders have inexplicably underestimated the European Parliament

The European Parliament has always pushed the boundaries of its powers, so it is incredible that national leaders seemed to take their eyes off the ball by so easily backing – or at least, accepting – the idea of lead candidates for the Commission presidency.

This concept is not in the treaties: it is a device used by the European political parties and the European Parliament to increase interest in the European elections, and to increase their power and standing. Now, heads of government – the vast majority of whom participated in the process – are in a bind: do they ignore ‘the will of the people’ (of which more later) or set a precedent that lessens their power and standing?

That the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, withdrew his support for Juncker is not a great surprise. When Juncker, in the presidential debate in Maastricht, referred to “curious guys” in the EPP, everyone suspected that Orbán was one of the targets. The Hungarian centre-right party, Fidesz, backed Juncker’s rival for the nomination, Michel Barnier (who is still in the running according to French media reports).

Merkel’s level of enthusiasm for Juncker’s bid is unclear

Sweden’s Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt – an ally of David Cameron in the European Council – backed his British counterpart’s view that leaders should look beyond the lead candidates. Not a massive shock. However, if a vote had been moved on Tuesday, Juncker may well have won the nomination.

However, after hours of talks, it was Angela Merkel’s press conference that raised eyebrows. She stated that observance of the treaties should override loyalty to a party colleague, and noted that there is a ‘broad tableau’ of good candidates.

We know that the German Chancellor was not the greatest fan of the lead candidates concept, but her CDU party nominated Juncker and supported his candidacy. Perhaps he was just a stooge – a convenient teutophone to counter Martin Schulz in Germany. Perhaps Merkel had calculated that the Parliament would be divided, and not back the lead candidate of the biggest party after the elections. An uncharacteristically incorrect calculation, it seems.

Now, after days of criticism in the German media, she has started to row back – but it is unclear about the level of enthusiasm she really has for Juncker’s bid.

In any case, the situation has been messy and a little undignified. Even if Juncker still takes the Commission presidency, he will be damaged. It is hard not to feel a little sympathy for him and the situation in which he has been placed.

2. Britain’s veto – not formal, but real?

I have long thought that David Cameron would be one of the most important players in this process.

No country wields a veto on the choice of Commission president, but it seems unthinkable that other member states would seek to impose a nomination on one of the four biggest countries – and especially one that is questioning its position in the European Union.

It is not like Britain does not have form in this area: John Major blocked Jean-Luc Dehaene in favour of Jacques SanterTony Blair blocked Guy Verhofstadt, preferring José Manuel Barroso.

Win or lose on Juncker, Cameron may have to pay a price in the longer term for his obstinacy

The ultimate choices were not particularly successful. But it did not – and does not – mean that the UK would want to quietly submit this time. The British Prime Minister has four weeks to find allies beyond Sweden and Hungary.

Many may see David Cameron himself as “too bossy and too interfering” (a phrase he used to describe ‘Brussels’ this week), but the political reality is that it is hard to ignore the views of the British government at this delicate stage, especially when they are held so strongly. This is certainly a big part of the calculation for Angela Merkel, who sees the UK as a necessary ally to reform the EU. Even if she backs Juncker, she will want to keep Cameron happy by some other means.

Win or lose on Juncker, Cameron may have to pay a price in the longer term for his obstinacy – for example, with a lesser portfolio in the Commission.

He clearly sees the choice of president as so intrinsically important to reform of the European Union that he is unlikely to give up in this fight quickly – and will now seek to rally more allies, a harder job given Merkel’s favourable hints about Juncker.

3. It’s about processes and precedents…

While it seems that only Cameron and Orbán were flatly opposed to Juncker’s nomination, there was a greater body of opinion in the European Council that national leaders should not be bounced into a decision by the European Parliament (even if that decision is one based on the votes in the European Parliament elections).

Many leaders – including Reinfeldt, the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte, and Merkel – were concerned about setting a precedent for the future. (And Matteo Renzi of Italy, bolstered by a strong showing for the Democratic Party in the elections, is said to want a more reforming figure in Brussels to support reform in Italy – this in spite of his strong backing for Martin Schulz, and therefore the process.)

Heads of government will want to look after their own powers and their own status

It is a question of power: the European Council is one of two players in the nomination and election process, and does not like being pushed into a particular direction by the Parliament. This is why it is surprising that the European political parties – of which, let’s not forget, these national leaders are significant members – were allowed to run so far with the process in the first place.

Now some national leaders are trying to slam on the brakes and possibly conduct a u-turn – often an inelegant manoeuvre. They may go back to Juncker and nominate him – but it is clear that such a choice must be seen as their own, not the Parliament’s.

Heads of government will probably calculate that short-term damage to credibility can be managed: Eurosceptics will say ‘there they go again’; Europhiles will cry foul. But heads of government will want to look after their own powers and their own status – a bigger long-term goal.

4. …but it’s a little bit about people too…

Personalities matter too – even though we are told that no names were discussed by leaders on Tuesday (something that is harder to believe when on Wednesday Poland put forward Radek Sikorski for the role of High Representative – something that surely would not happen without there being a fairly clear signal he would get the job).

We know that David Cameron would have been unhappy with any of the three main lead candidates, all seen as too ‘federalist’ for British tastes. However, there are others who have personal misgivings about Juncker.

It is becoming harder to see a similar competition happening in 2019 if no lead candidate becomes Commission president this time. Why would anyone bother?

Some inside the Commission and Council have expressed surprise that he was chosen by the EPP  in the first place; others have questioned whether he has the stamina for the demands of the Commission presidency (and there are rumours that national leaders may seek to use ‘health reasons’ as a way to get out of this bind).

Many see Juncker as a much better fit to succeed Van Rompuy than to succeed Barroso – allowing him to still ‘run Europe’, albeit from a different seat.

Perhaps the pertinent question is whether, if Reinfeldt, Finland’s Jyrki Katainen, or Ireland’s Enda Kenny were in Juncker’s position now, the nomination of Commission presidency would be so agonising.

Perhaps next time, serving prime ministers – and younger candidates – may join the race. But it is hard to see this happening (who would give up being PM to stand for a position they may not get?). It is also – sadly – becoming harder even to see a similar competition happening in 2019 if no lead candidate becomes Commission president this time. Why would anyone bother?

5. Betraying the electorate?

‘Choose who governs Europe’, said the posters.

True, people have chosen Members of the European Parliament, but we know that this election was about more than that. If none of the lead candidates heads the Commission, will voters have been hoodwinked?

In many ways, yes: we were told that ‘this time it is different’. One of the lead candidates would ‘govern’ Europe. Federalists have called the European Council’s actions a ‘coup d’État’.

There is a sense of betrayal, especially in Germany, where the race between Juncker and Schulz was much more prominent. Bild has said that such a move would risk making Europe look like East Germany or a banana republic. It was possibly this intervention by Bild’s publisher that made Merkel realise that she had a real problem.

‘#respectmyvote’ has become the hashtag of choice for those who feel betrayed. But it’s hardly a trending topic, and it is also true that nearly 57 per cent of the EU’s population did not vote, and that only around one in eight European citizens backed an EPP party. Juncker’s name did not appear on ballot papers; his name was not (and is not) widely known. These figures make it easier for national leaders – especially those not involved in the process, or whose candidate lost – to ignore Juncker and the other lead candidates.

It doesn’t look good to jettison Juncker – it has a whiff of ignoring democracy

Prime ministers and presidents will claim that they are more legitimate players, with greater name recognition and legitimacy. They have all been directly or indirectly elected. And they will know that there will be no mass uprising with ‘Juncker for President’ posters.

They also know that the treaties are clear, that they alone are responsible for nominating a presidential candidate.

But it doesn’t look good to jettison Juncker – hence Merkel’s change of heart. It has a whiff of ignoring democracy when you don’t like the result, even if there may be more able candidates.

And national leaders are largely to blame for this situation. Europe’s malaise is not just down to Brussels. Like complaining drivers in a traffic jam, they fail to realise they are part of the problem, too.

And by taking their eyes off the ball and allowing the Parliament and their own European political parties to take partial control of the nomination process, they have foolishly placed themselves in a mess they didn’t really need to be in.

If the European Council fails to wrestle back control the process (whether or not it nominates Juncker), it loses its hard-won position as the leading player in the European Union. It loses influence. It sets a dangerous precedent for its own future.

If the Parliament loses, the Commission president remains under the control of the European Council. MEPs lose credibility again after they were defiant, and then backed down, over the EU’s long-term budget. And the lead candidates concept – and the idea of giving voters a little more say in who governs Europe – is effectively dead.

Perhaps a compromise can be found. Perhaps the European Council can be persuaded to back Juncker as their ‘own man’ after an appropriate interlude. It looks more likely than it did 24 hours ago, but it is not a done deal.

Whatever happens, it hasn’t been and won’t be pretty. And the blame for that surely rests with national leaders.

A version of this article first appeared on the Europe Decides website / Image: CC BY-2.0 European People’s Party