Three days after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, with leaders at the national and European level firing the first shots in what promises to be an epic battle over European integration — and that will determine who really calls the shots in the European Union.
Last night, at an informal meeting of the European Council, the leaders of all 28 member-states of the European Union met to discuss how to approach the election of the next president of the European Commission, the powerful regulatory and executive arm of the European Union. The term of current president José Manuel Barroso, who has served in the role since 2004, will end within six months.
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They poured cold water on the notion that they would automatically propose former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president. Since Sunday, Juncker has stridently made his case that as the Commission presidential candidate (the ‘Spitzenkandiat‘) of the European People’s Party (EPP), which won the greatest number of seats in Sunday’s EU-wide elections, he should have the first right to attempt to assemble a parliamentary majority. That’s a position that, ironically, even the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES), the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament has endorsed:
Commenting on the leaders’ decision, outgoing Socialist group leader Hannes Swoboda tweeted that it’s “absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the Council by his own EPP family!”
It’s already starting to appear that, behind the scenes, the EPP, which won around 214 seats, and the PES, which won around 191 seats, are coming closer to forming a ‘grand coalition’ to back Juncker’s candidacy in a bid to assert the precedent that the Parliament should be the institution to determine the Commission presidency, not the Council. Both Juncker and the PES Spitzenkandidat, German social democrat Martin Schulz, have argued repeatedly that the Parliament should reject any Commission president that wasn’t among the original Spitzenkandidaten.
But it’s not so simple. The Commission president must win not only a parliamentary majority. He or she must also win a qualified majority among the heads of government and state that comprise the Council, and enthusiasm among those leaders seems to be flagging for Juncker.
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The key player, German chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured above), seemed testy in two press conferences since the election when asked about the looming showdown. As the leader of one of the top parties in the EPP, she officially supports Juncker, but her comments should hardly give Juncker comfort:
She also thanked Juncker for the “good campaign” he ran for the European People’s Party, but seemed slightly irritated by the avalanche of questions as to whether she backs Juncker to become the next EU commission president.
“I don’t decide who gets the post. Juncker is our candidate, the EPP candidate, and we will put his name forward in the discussions. It’s always been said that it’s up to the strongest group to put forward the candidate, but just being the strongest group is not enough, a majority is required,” she said.
Among national leaders, even among EPP stalwarts, Juncker’s candidacy is being met with skepticism. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt oppose Juncker outright. So does British prime minister David Cameron, whose position remains influential, even though the Conservative Party left the EPP in 2009. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who is also close to Merkel, though he’s a member of the liberal bloc in the European Parliament, has also expressed private reservations about Juncker, and the media has openly discussed the idea that the Council could recruit Christine Lagarde, the former French finance minister and the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, as its candidate instead. Intriguingly, Cameron has suggested that he might favor Danish social democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as Commission president.
If the Council is looking for a compromise candidate among the Spitzenkandidaten, they might turn to Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who led the campaign of the European liberal group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE).
Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny and even the Social Democratic chancellor of Austria Werner Faymann, who governs in his own grand coalition with the Austrian People’s Party, have endorsed Juncker.
After a brief meeting last night, the Council instead tasked Council president Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister, with opening discussions. Van Rompuy, whose position as Council president was created by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, will step down from the role in December 2014.
It’s been fascinating to watch the posturing between the Council and the Parliament in the 72 hours after the election. Juncker and parliamentary leaders are pushing for national leaders to fall in line behind the Spitzenkandidaten system. They believe that Juncker, as the candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc, should get the first chance to form a working majority to lead the Commission, in the same way that, after a national election, the national head of state nearly automatically offers the leader of the largest party the first chance to form a government.
They also believe that under the Treaty of Lisbon, which took effect in 2009 and purports to give the Parliament more powers, parliamentary leaders should take the lead in determining the Commission’s president — the treaty notes that the Council should propose a candidate, ‘taking into account’ the parliamentary election results, and that the Parliament shall elect the Commission president.
But national leaders believe that they still have a prerogative to determine the candidate they will propose. While Merkel has noted that she supports Juncker, she and other national leaders have also argued that the Council don’t necessarily need to propose a Commission president from the EPP nor even from among the set of five Spitzenkandidaten proposed by the European parliamentary groups.
It’s a classic battle between the two schools of European integration — neofunctionalism (which argues that European institutions gain power through the momentum of integration and the growth of expertise and governance at the European level) versus liberal intergovernmentalism (which argues that nation-states created the European Union’s institutions, and that nation-states still hold the ultimate veto power over the pace and extent of further integration).
For European historians, that means that a stalemate between the Parliament and the Council could rival the famous 1965-66 ‘empty chair crisis‘ in what was then the European Economic Community, instituted by then-French president Charles De Gaulle, which pitted De Gaulle and national leaders against the European Commission in a seven-month battle over the supranationality of the pan-European institutions. The crisis ended with a compromise that financed the Common Agricultural Policy, which largely benefitted French farmers, weakened the Commission, and introduced the right for large member-states to veto certain large-scale European initiatives.
This time around, it’s more like a ‘musical chairs’ crisis, as the Council, Parliament and other institutional actors try to balance, both ideologically and geographically the Commission presidency, the key roles within the Commission, the Council presidency and the foreign policy ‘high representative’ role.
Though the two sides are quickly staking their positions, it’s a fight that no one expects to end anytime soon. Van Rompuy will engage in negotiations with the various players for the next month or so.
The Council is due to nominate a formal Commission president candidate at its summit on June 26-27. The Parliament will, starting July 1, hold its first plenary session, and it’s set to vote on the Commission president between July 14 and 17. There’s no guarantee, however, that the tussle will be settled by July, meaning that it could turn into a full-fledged inter-institutional crisis by the end of the summer.
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That’s a result most European leaders want to avoid, however, especially after voters delivered more support than ever to eurosceptic candidates who decry the breakneck pace of continental integration and decry even more loudly the lack of democratic accountability among the European institutions. A drawn-out battle behind closed doors over the Commission presidency, which might also include horse-trading to determine Van Rompuy’s successor as Council president and the next high representative on EU foreign policy would showcase the worst anti-democratic instincts of the European Union.
Photo credit to Julien Warnand / Irish Times.