The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) won a total of 222 out of 751 seats in the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections – theoretically giving them the opportunity to select the President of the next European Commission.
Behind the alarming rise of Eurosceptic parties, the second major story emanating from last month’s European Parliament elections is the fight over the next President of the European Commission. Like most things EU, the designation of the new commission President is a convoluted, multi-step process – however convention usually dictates that he or she should come from the largest parliamentary group. Accordingly, EPP nominee and former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, should be the logical choice to replace José-Manuel Barroso.
Yet the possibility of Juncker assuming one of the EU’s top jobs has created an intense backlash, particularly from British Prime Minister David Cameron. Juncker is the consummate EU-insider and proponent of European expansion. Having served as President of the Eurogroup from 2005 to 2013 coupled with his pro-European stance as Prime Minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013 has given Juncker the appearance of a ‘Brussels Candidate.’ This has provoked the ire of Downing Street with Cameron embarking on a crusade to prevent Juncker from obtaining the Commission Presidency. Cameron’s opposition to Juncker lies in the belief that as Commission President, Juncker would promote the kind of expansionist agenda that is anathema to the British conception of the EU. Indeed, in a number of public declarations, the British Prime Minister has claimed that appointing Juncker could hasten the UK’s exit from the Brussels-based institution.
On his anti-Juncker warpath, Cameron has locked horns with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – long seen as the true power broker in all EU matters. During the Parliamentary election, Merkel urged voters to support the EPP with the expressed intention of electing Juncker as Commission President. Merkel is thus put in the uncomfortable situation of having to back Juncker and thus clash publicly with Cameron over the nomination. As such, Merkel has made her decision to back Juncker public and, given her pull in the EU, all but sealed the nomination of Juncker.
The fight over Juncker is deeply indicative of both the shortcomings of the EU and the internal divisions present between its main leaders. If anything else, the Juncker debate has highlighted the bizarre position the UK has held towards Brussels. Cameron is at once trying to assert his role within the institution all the while condemning the overzealous role Brussels has created for itself. This balancing act has even translated into one of their own being denied the EU Presidency during the last reshuffling of the EU’s top jobs. Indeed, Tony Blair was blocked from the job and met with intense criticism from current Foreign Secretary William Hague. Although Blair’s failure was not entirely of British doing, the possibility of him seeking another post in the EU was met with little enthusiasm from Downing Street.
Despite the senseless cacophony emanating from the Junker debate, it has served to highlight two key points. First, it has shown the limits of a Europe with variable geometries. The UK and Germany evidently have different conceptions of the role and place of the European Union, yet the institution can only have one leader and his vision for the EU will naturally clash with one power or the other. To solve this, the member states must have a genuine discussion on the future of the Union; if this leads to the exit of countries such as the UK, this may not be as cataclysmic as some suggest (as I have partly argued here). Second, this rift has uncovered a flaw in institutional design. The historic role of the EU has been to ensure peace on the continent through deeper integration and the promotion of democratic values. Yet, the very design of its leadership is shrouded in the kind of elitist, shadowy selection process that is the antithesis of the EU’s values. I therefore agree with Tony Blair when he says the EU needs to create a directly elected President – rather than a series obscurely appointed leaders. The next step in EU integration, regardless of the form it takes, is clearly to give a voice to the people of Europe through the direct election of the leaders in Brussels. Surely that is something all sides can agree to!
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