It won’t necessarily take much to block Juncker in Council vote

David Cameron and Angela Merkel

One fact that’s becoming increasingly clear in the current tussle over electing a new president of the European Commission is that the eventual candidate must win a qualified majority on the European Council, as well as an absolute majority in the European Parliament. European_Union

Though the rules for qualified majority voting on the Council are greatly simplified under the Treaty of Lisbon, it’s worth noting that those rules don’t take effect until November 2014.

That means that the old rules, under the Treaty of Nice, will be in effect during the current fight this summer over whether former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), can become the next Commission president.

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With the current president of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, currently taking the lead on the process, the Council will submit a formal proposal for Commission president during its next official summit on June 26 and 27.

That explains why the focus of the fight over Juncker has moved from the Parliament to a fight between German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron (pictured above, last week, left, with Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte).

Under the Lisbon rules, qualified majority voting means that a proposal under consideration by the Council must meet three requirements:

  • a majority of countries within the European Union (15 out of 28 countries);
  • a supermajority (74%) of countries according to a formula of voting weights; and
  • a supermajority of countries representing  at least 62% of the EU-wide population.

The trickiest hurdle is meeting the 74% hurdle. The system assigns weights, roughly corresponding to population, to each country, with a maximum of 29 for each of Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy, and a minimum of three for the smallest member, Malta. With a total of 352 weighted votes after Croatia’s July 2013 EU accession, that means Juncker must win at least 260 weighted votes. Conversely, it means that a minority consisting of 93 weighted votes can block Juncker.

Cameron is committed to opposing Juncker.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who belongs to the EPP, has also opposed Juncker in retribution for Luxembourg’s outspoken role on the Commission in the past five years attacking Orbán’s questionable respect for democratic norms and press freedom in Hungary.

Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, has also voiced doubts about Juncker’s candidacy, even though he also belongs to the EPP. If Juncker fails to pass muster in the Council, Reinfeldt himself has been mentioned as a compromise candidate, given the likelihood that his center-right Moderata samlingspartiet (Moderate Party) is expected to lose national elections in September.

Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, has joined Reinfeldt in his hesitation over Juncker. Rutte, like Cameron and Reinfeldt, is generally a Merkel ally on European economic policy and the need for trimming national budgets, but he belongs to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), the third-largest European parliamentary bloc.

If Sweden (10 weighted votes) and The Netherlands (13 votes) join Hungary (12 votes) and the United Kingdom (29 votes), Cameron will have 64 votes to block Juncker — and he’ll need just 29 more votes to do so.

Those votes could come from Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi has demanded a more flexible interpretation of EU budget rules and a greater emphasis on economic growth stimulation (instead of austerity) in exchange for backing Juncker. A deal seemed imminent earlier this week, though Renzi hasn’t yet declared either support or opposition for Juncker.

Right now, the momentum seems to be with Merkel and Juncker, and flowing away from Cameron. Either Rutte or Reinfeldt could back down from their criticisms. Furthermore, Renzi might be wary of alienating Merkel just four months into his premiership and days before Italy assumes the six-month rotating Council presidency. But Cameron, who has suggested Denmark’s social democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as an alternative Commission president, might yet persuade Renzi to join him for at least one shot at obtaining a more reformist Commission president than Juncker.

It’s worth noting that French president François Hollande, like Renzi, would like to see a greater emphasis on growth at the European level, and he hasn’t firmly indicated that he’ll support Juncker, either.

In the immediate aftermath of the European parliamentary elections, Juncker loudly proclaimed his right to have the first shot at winning a majority in the Parliament, after the center-right EPP won the most seats in the European election. That’s a position that even the EPP’s parliamentary rivals, the Party of European Socialists (PES) hold, because the various parliamentary parties believe that the Parliament, and not the Council, should have the greater role in selecting a Commission president. Accordingly, that’s why the major European parties each selected candidates for the Commission presidency — Spitzenkandiaten — who campaigned across the European Union and engaged in several debates throughout the course of the parliamentary election campaign.

But the Council must first ‘propose’ a candidate to the Parliament, according to the Treaty of Lisbon, which directs the Council to ‘take into account’ the results of the parliamentary election. Parliamentary leaders, Juncker and the other Spitzenkandidaten all argue that means the Council must give Juncker, as the Commission presidential candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc, the first shot. The national leaders that comprise the Council, including Merkel, have acknowledged that the Council’s proposed candidate won’t automatically follow the new Spitzenkandidaten system.

If Cameron succeeds in blocking Juncker next week, there are any number of candidates that the Council support, including Reinfeldt, Thorning-Schmidt, center-right Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny, former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis or soon-to-be-former Finnish prime minister Jykri Katainen.

Nonetheless, the Parliament has indicted that it will reject any non-Spitzenkandidaten alternative, which could cause a governance crisis just weeks after European voters delivered historically high support to anti-EU and eurosceptic parties.

Under pressure within Germany, Merkel belatedly expressed support for Juncker, in light of the fact that they both belong to the EPP, but she delivered only lukewarm support for Juncker during the parliamentary elections. Though she’s now making a strong case for Juncker, it’s almost certain that she’s doing so to bring about a quick resolution to the crisis and to avoid a protracted summer fight between the Council and the Parliament, not out of any particular love for Juncker. Even if the Council proposes Juncker, national leaders will be able to argue in 2019, 2024 and thereafter that the Council still exercised its prerogative over the process.

But soon after the elections, Cameron avowedly opposed Juncker for the Commission presidency. Cameron, who pulled his Conservative Party out of the EPP in 2009 to form a new group, the more anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), has argued that the rise of eurosceptic parties, most especially the United Kingdom Independence Party and France’s Front national (FN, National Front) demonstrate the need for a more reformist Commission. Cameron has argued that Juncker, an old-school European federalist who played a key role in shaping European monetary union and who served as the first head of the Eurogroup, the working group of the eurozone’s finance minister, is ill-suited to the task.

Merkel and Cameron openly clashed, however, after talks last week over, with Merkel rebuking Cameron’s position on the Commission presidency:

After the Harpsund talks concluded, she said: “I made myself clear by saying that I am for Jean-Claude Juncker. But when I made that statement in Germany, I also made the point that we act in a European spirit. We always do that because otherwise you would never reach a compromise.

“Thus we cannot just consign to the backburner the question of the European spirit. Threats are not part and parcel of that spirit. That is not part of the way in which we usually proceed.”

Merkel made her remarks after Cameron was asked whether he had issued threats to leave the EU. He came close to confirming that he had made clear in Brussels last week that the appointment of Juncker could act as a major boost to the anti-EU side in his planned in/out referendum in 2017. The prime minister said: “I have a very straightforward approach, which is that I want Britain to stay in a reformed EU. That is my goal. That is what I think is best for Britain and the best for Europe as well.

Cameron has pledged, if reelected as prime minister in UK elections scheduled for May 2015, to hold a referendum on British EU membership sometime in 2017, in light of repeated calls from within his own party and from UKIP. Cameron hopes to carve out new exceptions for the United Kingdom between 2015 and 2017 and then take the case for continued EU membership to British voters. He has argued that, with the eurosceptic UKIP winning the greatest number of votes in the May 25 elections, he will have a harder case if Juncker less the Commission — and if the European Union doesn’t embrace reforms to make it more accountable to frustrated European voters.

Photo credit to The Guardian.

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