The fight over Europe’s new president


British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and leader of the opposition Labor Party Ed Miliband, right, and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, center, walk through the Members’ Lobby to listen to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II deliver the Queen’s Speech during the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London on June 4. Both Cameron and Clegg have argued strongly against the European Parliament’s choice for new President of the European Commission. (Dan Kitwood/AFP/Getty Images)

The member states of the European Union are currently arguing over who gets to be the new president of the European Commission. Like most intra-European fights, it’s messy and largely incomprehensible to outsiders. Yet it’s also very important. The new president will have substantial influence over policy. Moreover, the battle will have long-term consequences for how democracy works in the European Union.

What does the President of the European Commission actually do?

It’s complicated. Europe has a messy and decentralized political system, in which power is divided between the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council (which represents the collectivity of member states) and the individual member states (who still retain substantial independence in areas like e.g. military affairs). Each of the major institutions – the commission, the parliament and the council has its own president (there’s also the quite separate institution of the council presidency, which rotates among member states — as I said, it’s complicated).

However, the president of the European Commission is certainly the most powerful of the three. He or she (there’s never been a female president) guides the work of the commission, which is a super-charged executive bureaucracy. The commission does much of what bureaucracies always do — managing and implementing programs and so on. However, it also has a more active role in setting rules and helping draft legislation. Under European law, the commission has the “right of initiative,” meaning that it is the only actor that can formally propose new legislation, although in practice, it has ceded much of its actual agenda-setting power to the member states. The job of commission president can be very politically important, but over the last couple of decades, Europe’s member states have mostly settled for safe, dull choices.

So why has it become so political now?

When the member states last changed the semi-constitutional treaties that govern the European Union, they reformed the procedure through which the commission president was chosen. Instead of being chosen by the member states, the commission president is now just nominated by the council of member states, “taking into account the elections of the European Parliament,” and is then elected by the European Parliament on the basis of a majority vote. If the council’s candidate doesn’t get approval from a majority of MEPs, the council has a month to put forward a new candidate.

The member states introduced this change to give the European Union a little more democratic legitimacy. The idea was that European Parliament elections would become more like national elections, where voters decide between different parties, each of which could form (or help form) a government. Each of the major parties in the European Parliament would have a candidate for president of the commission.

This was supposed to make E.U. politics a little more appealing and interesting to voters, and hence more legitimate. Voters usually don’t use European Parliament elections to express their preferences over European policies. They use them to express their feelings (which are usually unhappy) about national governments. The new rules also recognized the success of the European Parliament in redefining existing rules to give it greater influence over the Commission.

Did the prospect of voting for a commission president get citizens excited about the elections?

No, although at least turnout remained stable, after decades of persistent decline. In one sense European issues did become more important than in previous elections. The economic disaster of the last several years has sharpened attitudes to “Europe,” perhaps creating a somewhat clearer division between the European left and right. However, it would be very difficult to argue that most voters had any sense they were voting for different candidates for the Commission President, representing different approaches to government. The major parties in the European Parliament did select candidates (so-called “Spitzenkandidaten,” or “peak candidates” in German). However, as best as we can tell, few people knew who these candidates were, or cared particularly, despite efforts to organize ‘presidential debates’ and the like (even if countries that had a candidate running certainly knew more.

After the elections, the center right grouping was the largest party in the new European Parliament. This led most of the other parties in the European Parliament to support the center right’s candidate for commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg.

So the member states ‘took into account’ the European Parliament elections and are going to nominate Juncker?

Very likely they will do this in the end, but only after a bitter fight. David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister is vehemently opposed to Juncker, and has been making it known that Britain may vote to leave the European Union if he is nominated. Cameron faces a lot of pressure from members of his own party who detest “Brussels” (where most of the E.U.’s main institutions are located). They are especially allergic to Juncker, who is a classic Brussels dealmaker. These people argue that the best way to “take account” of the parliamentary elections is to recognize that voters don’t like the European Union very much, and hence to avoid nominating another E.U. insider like Juncker.

Other British politicians such as the Liberal Democratic deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, and former member of the European Commission Chris Patten are not violently Europhobic, but strongly oppose the new political role of the European Parliament. In Clegg’s case, this is somewhat ironic. Unlike most major national politicians in Europe, he made his career as a member of the European Parliament, and a notably pushy one at that.

Some other national leaders are also unenthused by Juncker, but are more circumspect in their public statements. During the economic crisis, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel consistently pushed for a new model of the European Union where the big member states – like Germany – would play a more important role. She wanted to subordinate the commission to the member states, and would also prefer to avoid a perceived victory for the European Parliament, which could set a dangerous precedent. However, the virulence of Cameron’s threats, together with quiet pressure from her own party (which is on the center right, and friendly to Juncker) and its allies, has led her to embrace Juncker’s candidacy, albeit more gingerly than Juncker might have liked. At the moment, it looks likely that Britain will be outvoted, and that Juncker will become commission president.

So what are the long term consequences of nominating Juncker?

If Juncker is nominated, he will surely be elected. This will indeed set an important precedent which the parliament will make full use of. However, the victory will be somewhat artificial. Even if Juncker was the declared candidate, his democratic mandate is limited by the fact that few voters were aware that they were, in effect, voting for or against him. The parliament and its allies have been building democratic institutions for the last few decades in the hope that ordinary voters will, some day, take interest and help turn the E.U. into something that vaguely resembles a real, contentious democracy. So far, it hasn’t happened. The optimistic case for linking the choice of a new commission president to European Parliament elections is the “Field of Dreams” one — if you build a democratic system, perhaps a European democratic public will come. They haven’t come yet, but they might.

More immediately, the fight illustrates the paradoxes of European politics. The major parties of the European Parliament are entirely united in promoting the parliament’s interests, on the theory that the European public should be able to choose between different parties with different policies. David Cameron, who would like a Europe in which the powers of the commission and parliament were sharply diminished, has picked a fight which will almost certainly increase these institutions’ powers instead. And Merkel, who wants a Europe in which big states preserve an effective veto power, is about to set a precedent for overruling a big member state on an issue it perceives as a matter of vital national interest.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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