With the recent European Parliament (EP) elections now past, the month long wrangling over whom will be selected as EU Commission President in place of President Barroso has begun. With the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty procedure due to be enacted for the first time – which sees the European Council (national Government’s) put forward a candidate which is then ratified by the EP – battle lines are being drawn between the two institutions over who holds the trump card and final say in selection. What would have been a contentious and heavily negotiated position in any case took a new and alarmingly confrontational twist over the weekend as reports leaked of the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s vehement opposition to Juncker’s appointment, hinting that it could be the tipping point in the UK’s participation in the EU.
With the European People’s Party (EPP) winning the majority of seats in May’s elections, their leader, Juncker, who performed admirably and steadily in the preceding television debates, was put forward as the lead candidate by the EP – who have final say on selection which is due to take place at the end of June. Juncker, a former Luxembourg Prime Minister and long-time EU official, is broadly seen as a steady appointment, well versed in diplomatic deals and bridge building, who gains support across the political spectrum with his belief that “without compromises, there is no democracy” approach.
A post-election Council dinner in Brussels was convened to discuss this with opposition quickly finding its way into the open. A coalition of the UK, Sweden, Hungary, and the Netherlands formed a blocking minority almost instantly (probably over an opening espresso) with the general belief that Juncker is not the ideal candidate having been embedded in the EP for so long. There are a number of key points which must be taken into consideration before any forthright decision can be made on this blocking minority and their stance against Juncker – who on paper has the strongest democratic mandate of any previous EU Commissioner.
The UK, Sweden, Netherlands, and Hungary have always had close ties within the EU and so a loose coalition on this point is not so unexpected. But to be clear, this minority does not have the substance or power at this point to block or veto Juncker’s appointment. But by so adamantly setting out their views on Juncker, it is hard to imagine a constructive working relationship over the next 5 year term without a change in national leadership.
Another point of note should be the somewhat (in my eyes) misguided judgement by Cameron to move Conservative MEPs out of the EPP and form a new political party (ECR) back in 2009. With UK Conservative MEPs now having no say in the direction of the largest controlling EP party, where they once formed the backbone of debate and negotiations, is a blow and severely weakens their influence over legislature.
The proposed UK referendum is also playing a key role, with Cameron’s promise to wrest powers back from the EU, specifically with regards to social welfare benefits of EU migrants, believed to be at jeopardy if Juncker is indeed appointed. This can be said to be Cameron’s defining point, if he can prove to his own Conservative party back in the UK that he has the power and influence to block the leading Commissioner candidate not of his choosing, it will send a message that he can deliver on other promised reforms. In Cameron’s eyes, this is a battle he dare not lose.
However, you mustn’t just think of this as another example of UK anti-EU sentiment. According to reports, Angela Merkel did in fact waver in her support for Juncker due to the reaction and quick formalisation of the blocking minority, before later coming out to support the lead candidate. Merkel will be key player in the upcoming power struggle and for her support to waver so quickly for the German candidate – however minimal – shows the concern she has for this appointment. It’s also worth noting that the past EU heavyweights (barring Germany) are opposed to this appointment. Italy’s Matteo Renzi came out against Juncker, while Francois Hollande would prefer a French candidate in light of the terrible far-right election win for the FN which severely damaged Hollande’s credibility. With the UK, France, and Italy (to name a few) all against this appointment, the key founders and most powerful economies beneath Germany have voiced their concerns, and rarely have these powers not achieved their goal when they are of similar mind.
When the next EU President is selected at the end of June, it will no doubt be after intense negotiations across the board. Personally, I am not against Juncker being appointed and find it laughable that he is described as a “…federalist nightmare who is completely arrogant and totally fixated on future union” (Bill Cash MP, European Scrutiny Committee, UK) in the press, but I am a staunch believer in the Commission as a plutonic space for the creation of legislature. The fear is that Juncker is too much of a politician and will not be able to balance the Council and EP together for the long-term. The core question is whether the EU is now led by the Council, or the Commission/EP. After nigh on two decades of ever-increasing union, the month ahead will prove what direction the next 5 years will take.