Rise of the Spitzenkandidat

27_juncker_r_w_LRGThe nomination of the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, as the next President of the European Commission, by the European Council, and his certain confirmation by the European Parliament later this summer, is not only remarkable for the effect it is likely to have on a future British referendum on remaining in the European Union; it also signals a shift in the balance of power within the EU.  What are the likely repercussions of Mr Juncker’s new job, and what of the man himself?The European Union’s institutional structure has been a mess for decades.  A victim of its uneasy birth and the failure of consensus over the role of the EU among member states themselves, successive “fixes” have made the situation worse.  Euro-sceptics have long argued that the EU is not democratic (even, at times tyrannical) – and at the heart of their criticism has been the European Commission.  Intended originally to morph into a government of a federal Europe, instead the Commission has morphed into a fudge – part Civil Service coordination board, part regulator, part parliamentary draftsman.

With its members appointed by the elected governments of the member states, I’ve always been confused by the arguments leveled at the Commission: how many countries elect their competition authority board members, or civil servants?  What about the Council (of the EU, and European – two entities despite confusingly similar names), made up of the elected governments of the member states (the members of whom are progressively renewed by national elections)?  What about the Parliament who can (and do) veto Commission proposals, and has increasingly been able to impose its own agenda on the Commission, whose key prerogative, the monopoly over proposing draft legislation, has gradually been warned down by politics?

The role of the President of the European Commission has increasingly become that of a symbol of the EU itself, representing the EU, its dynamism of the 1980s under Jacques Delors, torper of the 1990s under Jacques Santer and contradictions of the 2000s under Juan-Manuel Barroso, mainly due to the lack of any other figure.  This is a problem that Herman Van Rompuy could have (but chose actively not to) addressed, as President of the European Council.  Instead the Commission President is part Chairman, part pinata.

Hence the idea, in the Lisbon Treaty, to introduce a measure of electoral legitimacy to the President, by linking his political hue to that of the European Parliament.  This initiative, seemingly attractive, if you put aside the apolitical roles of the Commission which are extensive, gained ground and eventually evolved into the Spitzenkandidaten.  These “leading candidates” would be put forward by each political block in the Parliament as their preferred candidate for Commission President, even holding Presidential-style debates with each other.  Voters choosing their members of Parliament would feel as if they were really controlling the outcome of government within the Union.

This idea was always rather false.  Whilst it is daft to suggest that democracy is illegitimate within the EU as long as turnout remains as low as 43% (Ronald Reagan governed the US to acclaim with turnout never over 55%), and despite the awkwardly worded treaty provision, the Parliament no more “elected” the President of the Commission than did the voters last month.  Instead, the choice depended on the heads of government in the European Council last week, and partly due to German and British party politics, Juncker’s nomination was easily confirmed.

Juncker’s energetic campaign (largely ignored by the mainstream media in much of Europe, despite a commonsense platform and a glossy website) had not impacted the electorate, but it had left a mark on many European politicians.  In particular, those in Germany who felt that the Parliament’s role should be expanded, saw the debate as a key moment when European politics, and the creation of the long hoped for European polity, were born.  In Britain, quite the opposite was felt – the debate was derided as a pointless, irrelevant exercise, even undemocratic.  The stark differences in different member states’ coverage have been widely remarked upon by outsiders.

Angela Merkel, no huge fan of Juncker, had taken her eye off the ball.  Her sway over the European People’s Party (her CDU/CSU delegation is the largest within the EPP) would have enabled her to ensure that the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat was someone more palatable (or malleable) to her priorities.  Instead, she stood back whilst the EPP chose Juncker, largely by default.  The Parliament’s democratic juggernaut then hit the road, and Merkel quickly found that any attempt to disavow the Parliament’s choice and impose another candidate would be viewed dimly by her own party, and, perhaps more importantly, her coalition partners in the German Federal Government, the SPD.

So Merkel got stuck with Juncker, and so indeed did David Cameron.  Having left the EPP when he took his Conservative MEPs into a smaller more Euro-sceptic grouping in the Parliament, Cameron had no chance to intervene to block Juncker’s nomination by the group.  Ironically, the outcome of the election in the UK, where no party participates in the EPP, simply sought to dilute the opposition to Juncker, and so Cameron sought to enforce a moral veto, when the legal veto his predecessors had enjoyed had been removed by the Treaty of Lisbon.

Instead, Cameron’s inept campaign against Juncker, which involved grubby accusations of Juncker liking a tipple, and being boring, drove European leaders into the Juncker camp, and a resounding vote in favour of Juncker within the European Council.  Cameron reaped plaudits from within his own party for having stood up for “Britain’s interests” and the press tutted as Britain, they said, was pushed closer to the exit of the EU.

For all the fuss over Spitzenkandidaten and their impact on “revolutionising” European democracy, the lasting effects are unlikely to be felt any time soon.  Juncker is the safest option for those seeking continuity in the slow, boring pragmatism of much of EU policy.  This includes Merkel, and despite his pleadings to the contrary, Cameron too.  Juncker’s federalist credentials were always overblown.  His programme is a mix of political fudge and managerial commonsense and is unlikely to herald a new revolution in European power, just as the member states wanted. Merkel will continue to dominate both Councils (unless the German economy stutters) and Cameron will have a harmless bogeyman to play against: not quite threatening enough to provoke a UK exit of the EU, but not quite benign enough to upset the comfortably Europhobic members of his own party.  The Parliament too feels unthreatened by this future Commission that it will be able to dominate thanks to its growing legal power, if not public profile.

So we “elected” Juncker and, in an election fundamentally about a desire for change, we got the status quo.  Democracy is funny like that.


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