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The mother-of-all-battles over European integration has begun


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.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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RELATED: In depth — European parliamentary elections

RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are real four contests

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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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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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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.

The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

Festival of Europe Open day 2012 in Strasbourg

It’s hard to know exactly how to place the European parliamentary elections in the constellation of world politics. European_Union

From one perspective, they’re relatively unimportant — a largely apathetic electorate is choosing a body of 751 MEPs in a parliament that has less power within the European Union than most parliamentary bodies have within national governments. The Council of the European Union gives member-states veto power over EU legislation and the European Commission, the regulatory executive of the European Union, has the power to introduce legislation. Voters, since the first direct elections in 1979, have turned out in ever lower proportions with each election cycle. To the extent you talk to European voters who actually care about the elections, they mostly view them as an opportunity for a protest vote.

From another perspective, they’re incredibly important. They represent the one point of genuine democratic participation within the European Union and, given the tumult of the past five years with respect to the eurozone, the European economy and the power of relatively wealthier states to dictate the monetary policy and, increasingly, the fiscal policy of weaker states, the current elections  represent a major conversation about the future of EU policy. That’s especially true in the context of the weighty matters that the next European Parliament will face, including a new data privacy directive and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a potentially game-changing free-trade agreement with the United States.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections

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So which is the right interpretation?

It can be both — and many things besides — depending on your view. That’s because the European parliamentary elections are really four separate political contests, wrapped up and presented as one set of elections. The relative importance or unimportance that a particular actor places on the ‘European elections’ depends upon which of the four ‘contests’ most resonates.

So what are the four contests simultaneously raging across Europe? Continue reading The European parliamentary elections are really four contests