Dr Patrick Holden explains the background to the recent controversy over Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as European Commission President in the teeth of UK opposition. He argues that much of the context for this story has been neglected by the British media, in particular the role of transnational European Political Groups (whose influence is not limited to the European Parliament) has not been well explained. He analyses how Britain’s isolation is leading to a dynamic of confrontation which could escalate out of control. He also explains the implications of what has occurred for the European institutions and Europe’s democratic deficit.
The row between David Cameron and his European counterparts over Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination for the Presidency of the European Commission illustrates the widening chasm between Britain and the rest of the European Union. It is striking that an initiative (to link the European Parliament elections with the Commission leadership) which was viewed in many parts of the continent as a means of reducing the EU’s democratic deficit was viewed in Britain as a further attack on democracy in Europe. Several aspects of this affair pose intriguing questions. If Angela Merkel and other leaders really had their doubts about Juncker, why did they support him? Are they really so afraid of the all-powerful European Parliament? Why did David Cameron fail to build allies and did he ever really have a chance of blocking the nomination? Given that he knew he would lose, why persist with the struggle and call a vote? After he had lost, Cameron and Juncker had a telephone conversation on Sunday 29th June and agreed that they could work together. They are, after all, from the same broad political family (Juncker is a centre right politician). So what was it all about and why has Juncker’s appointment, by the UK Prime Minister’s own admission, pushed the UK further towards an EU exit?
This post will first provide some background to the process which led to Juncker being nominated (whatever one thinks of the nominee, it was the most open and transparent process used to select a Commission President), and analyse the reasons for Cameron’s isolation, in particular the role of transnational European Political Groups (whose influence is not limited to the European Parliament). It will then outline in more detail what is at stake here, in terms of the power of the Commission and the European Parliament. Following this it will critique the approach of the British government. It must be emphasised that this critique is based on the assumption that the Prime Minister wants to keep Britain in the EU, a fact reiterated by him in his Bloomberg speech of 2013. Finally it will discuss how this episode, or rather the political dynamics it reveals, gives us a glimpse of how the UK could end up leaving the EU.
A triumph of the EP or the EPP?
The European Parliament/EP has inexorably risen in power over the last decades. It had already the power of veto over the European Commission’s leadership and the Lisbon Treaty gave it a more explicit role (if vague) in determining the Commission President. The European Parliament is structured by Political Groups: large ensembles of like-minded parties (looser than a political party but more than just alliances). The most notable of these are:
Group of the European People’s Party/EPP: a grouping of Christian Democrat, ‘centre right’ parties, which included the Tories until 2009. This is the Group which nominated Juncker.
Group of Progressive Alliance of Socialist and Democrats: a grouping of ‘social democratic’ or centre left parties including the British Labour party.
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe: including the Liberal Democrats.
The European Conservatives and Reformists Group: This was the Group formed by the Tories when they left the EPP. It also includes a Eurosceptic German party.
These Groups initiated a process of nominating candidates for the Commission President in the run up to the European elections of May. The assumption being that the nominee of the most popular Political Group would be the President. This was viewed as a way of giving more teeth to the European Parliament elections (making them more like a national election) and also increasing the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission. Of course there are numerous counter-arguments to this, as outlined in the following section. Where it gets complicated (and where the line between the Parliament and the national leaders in the Council gets blurred) is that Groups such as the EPP do not just consist of MEPs, rather all of the leaders of each member party are also members of the EPP. Thus the EPP includes Angela Merkel, Mariano Rajoy (the Prime Minister of Spain), Donald Tusk (the Prime Minister of Poland), Enda Kenny (Prime Minister/Taoiseach of Ireland), Freidrich Reinfelt (Prime Minister of Sweden) and several others (12 heads of state and government in all). All of these leaders were at the EPP conference in Dublin in March 2014 at which Juncker was selected, defeating the more economically liberal Michel Barnier by 382 votes to 245. Three points are worth emphasising here. Firstly, if Cameron had stayed in the EPP he could well have swung the vote against Juncker. Secondly, the aforementioned national leaders who are EPP members were beholden to support Juncker (although one, Hunagary’s Viktor Orban, did not). Thirdly, this event was not well-covered in the British media, as no there was no British party involved. This would allow the media to later portray the Juncker candidacy as some kind of conspiracy. Predictably, the notion of having a European-wide election was hardly a barnstorming success. There were televised debates between the main candidates, and in some countries (notably the Low Countries and, importantly, Germany) the Presidential nominees had a relatively high profile and this pan-European dimension was apparent. However, in most countries voters would have had no idea of the Presidential dimension. Above all, in the UK this was entirely absent.
The actual elections revealed a great surge in Euroscepticism with the rise of right-wing Eurosceptic parties in the UK, France and Denmark (as well as left-wing parties in Greece and Ireland). However, they also left the EPP as the largest Political Group, which put Juncker in a strong position. The EPP did not have a majority by any means but the other main Groups agreed that he would be the Parliament’s supported candidate, which gave him crucial momentum. Cameron immediately tried to build momentum against Juncker’s candidacy. He was initially given reason to hope by Merkel, who avoided explicitly supporting Juncker in the days after the election. However she did state “As a member of the EPP, I proposed Jean-Claude Juncker as President for the European Commission. I supported him. I have not forgotten this one day after the election.” Two factors militated against his cause. In linking this issue with the question of Britain’s very membership of the EU, the British Prime Minister overplayed his hand badly and actually made it more difficult for other leaders to compromise to what was seen as blackmail. Within Germany itself Merkel came under a lot of criticism for vacillating in support of what was seen as the ‘democratic’ candidate. For Merkel and other EPP leaders to turn against Juncker now would have been a gross and very public betrayal and on the 2nd of June Merkel declared her support for Juncker. After this the game was up for Cameron, as only with German backing could he have hoped to derail Juncker, who had the support of the Parliament and a major cluster of EPP-led member states. (Decision-making in the enlarged European Union is so tortuous that momentum has become especially important and there was clearly no appetite to ditch Juncker and come up with a new process for getting a Commission President).
In brief, what occurred over the last month was not that Merkel and other centre right national leaders suddenly decided to support Juncker but that (after an initial wobble) they decided to maintain their support for him. In maintaining this support there were certainly ‘back-room deals’ going on but the process was on the whole more public and more transparent than before.
What was at stake?
Just how important is the Commission President? Most would agree that it is the single-most important position (with the possible exception of President of the European Central Bank, a highly specific role) in the EU. The Commission President leads the strongest, long-standing, supranational organisation in the EU. The Commission has a multiplicity of roles, and, as often pointed out, it is a hybrid organisation part political/part civil service. It functions as the enforcer of EU law (in tandem with the Courts), it has a major role in external economic relations and it generally serves as a kind of embryonic EU administration. Most uniquely, for an unelected supranational organisation, the Commission initiates and proposes EU law. This range of powers is partly why the Commission is so disliked by Eurosceptics. Its unelected nature in particular leaves it open to criticism. The original thinking behind making the Commission unelected was that it is supposed to look after the European interest as a whole (insulate from specific national and other interests). Indeed that is why many academics disagree with the idea of politicising the Commission (making its leadership electable), as they fear it could lose its neutral status.
However, in practice moves to strengthen the democratic nature of the EU have centred on efforts to make the Commission more accountable to the European Parliament, culminating in the Political Groups efforts to nominate one of their own as President. The President has important agenda-setting powers and shapes the legislative/policy priorities of the Commission for the next 5 years. However, he or she, is by no means all powerful. Importantly they do not choose their own ‘college’ of fellow Commissioners who are nominated by member states and ratified by the Parliament. Individual Commissioners have a lot of autonomy, the Competition Commissioner for example, makes the final decision over mergers etc. Also the Commission as a whole has limits on its powers, it can propose legislation but (apart from technical statutory law) this has to be ratified by the Council of member states and the European Parliament.
Therefore while the President of the Commission is a very important leader, he/she is hardly all powerful. The personality of Jean-Claude Juncker has been much analysed and I have nothing original to add here. Suffice it to say that he certainly has extensive experience of working with different countries and institutions at the European level, but he is not exactly a new face. Clearly, the UK felt the position (and the nomination process) was worth fighting for. In some respects, this was an argument about the nature of democracy. The increased role of the European Parliament was proposed as a way to ameliorate its ‘democratic deficit’. The problem with this, is that there is not (yet at least) a European demos, as in there is not a sufficiently strong identity and collective understanding for a meaningful pan-European election. Thus many dispute that the European Parliament can solve the legitimacy problem of the Union, as it is national institutions that embody democratic legitimacy. The British argument with the way the selection process unfolded is that legitimacy lies with the elected national leaders (not the European parliament). The problem with this is that the aggregated decision-making of 28 elected national leaders is not in itself democratic (it comes down to bargaining between the more powerful states). In reality there are only two neat solutions to the democratic deficit of the European Union, neither of which is politically palatable:
- Devolve all power back to member states, making the EU purely intergovernmental. This would effectively mean the end of the EU as a supranational, integrated organisation and is extremely unlikely.
- Fully centralise power in Brussels; if the EU became a genuine state we could replicate the democratic institutions of the state (some kind of bi-cameral legislature and a fully elected European executive). This is even less feasible.
Short of either of those two solutions, the EU is likely to muddle on in a situation where the member state institutions remain the ultimate gatekeepers but there is a strong supranational element.
Britain’s confrontational strategy
It is fair to say that the personality of the Commission President is important, but not a game changer in terms of Britain’s reform agenda. Given this fact, it’s not clear why the disputes about the nomination had to be ratcheted up to such an existential crisis. The enlisting of the British press into an anti-Juncker campaign was not helpful either. The hyperbole about ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ was perceived as bullying. European politicians would be naive to believe that there is anything they could do to satisfy the British press in any case so criticism from that quarter carries little force. To raise the ‘BREXIT’ (British exit from the European Union) card at this stage was an explosive move. It confirmed the fears of others when the UK Prime Minister announced his plans for a referendum. A generational in-out referendum is perfectly legitimate but if the threat of exit becomes a constant negotiating tactic that is another thing. The other 27 countries of the EU all have their likes and dislikes about the European Union (many Eastern Europeans were less than keen on British citizens buying property and thus raising prices in their regions, for example). If each country were to threaten to leave every time things don’t go their way the Union would become completely unworkable. Other European leaders are keen for Britain to remain for multiple reasons (although not all in Europe would be sad to see the UK go). However, this is not at any price. Polls imply that the opposition of David Cameron to the Juncker nomination was popular among the ordinary people of the UK (this is hardly surprising given that he was presented as a chain-smoking, alcoholic, dribbling federalist schemer). Thus, even when he knew Juncker would be appointed, David Cameron insisted on bringing it to a vote repeating his warnings about Britain’s exit. It’s very hard to see what was gained by this move. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have expressed outrage that some leaders privately implied doubts about Juncker but then refused to follow through. This is part and parcel of politics, unfortunately, in the UK as well as other countries. The Prime Minister’s cabinet colleagues publicly lambasted the other 26 Prime Ministers and Presidents of the EU (one country, Hungary, did vote with the UK); as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stated ” they’re going to have to work a lot harder to persuade the British people that Europe can be trusted with a proper reform agenda”. This statement that shows a certain detachment from reality (all of these leaders have their own electorates to satisfy first and foremost).
All in all, the outcome here was not of earth-shattering importance but it is emblematic of the political forces that could see the UK leaving the EU (although the interests of big business within the UK will have much to say about this). Let us revisit the core sequence here:
1. The UK takes decisions which reduce its influence. In this case the crucial decision was the Conservative Party withdrawing from the EPP in 2006. This was an election pledge of David Cameron, to win the support of Euro-sceptic grassroots Conservatives during his leadership campaign of 2005. He was warned that Groups such as the EPP were increasingly influential and that leaving it would weaken the Tories, and Britain more generally in Europe.
2. The institution in question takes a decision inimical to British government desires, in this case proposing Juncker.
3. The British government reacts to this fait accompli, and its own marginalisation, by taking a very strong stand and raising the possibility of exit.
4. Other European leaders react strongly against this.
5. But the position is popular at home and turning back is difficult.
6. The British Prime Minister gets a poor result (or nothing) from the negotiations. His isolation and (arguably) humiliation reinforces the negative feelings in Britain about Europe.
Assuming this occurs in the build-up to an in-out referendum, the Prime Minister would be hard-pressed to convince the British people to vote to remain (even if most of the political elite and most of the economic elite want to stay in). Arguably the core dynamic here has been internal divisions within the Conservative Party. It seems impossible for the Prime Minister to both satisfy his own party and pursue a credible negotiation strategy in Europe. I should repeat that it’s perfectly valid to want Britain to leave the European Union but, if the Prime Minister does not want this to happen, he needs to change his approach. The old adage about speaking softly and carrying a big stick is quite appropriate. At this stage the prospect of the UK leaving is well and truly out in the open there is no need for it to be repeated at every European Council. The ‘big stick’ (or at least moderately sized stick, people should be clear that EU can survive without the UK) is there, but the British Prime Minister needs to carefully analyse the interests and needs of his partners in Europe.
Interesting insights can be gleaned here as to the roots of the UK’s marginalisation in Europe. UK non-membership of the Euro is often cited as a fundamental gap between it and its partners (although the advantages of not being in the Euro straight-jacket outweigh any loss of influence). Beyond the financial and economic sphere however, transnational European political movements are developing which UK parties are, mostly, excluded from. This was the root cause of the recent controversy. It is also worth noting that the Lisbon Treaty, although it disappointed federalists by only offering moderate changes, did change the game significantly by further reducing nation states’ veto-power, just making it impossible for one member state to block Juncker in this case. This makes the building of alliances even more imperative than before. On the whole, this episode is important not so much for the end result (which is easily forgotten) but because of the chasms it reveals between the UK and Europe. The fact that in this case, and in the case of the veto over the Fiscal Compact, what by any conventional analysis is a failure of British policy (the Fiscal Compact and Juncker both went through) leads to a boost in the polls is an ominous development for those who want Britain to stay in. The UK’s relationship with its EU partners is increasingly looking a like a dialogue of the deaf. In the aftermath of this dispute, European leaders have been quick to reiterate their support for Britain, stating that the UK’s exit from the EU would be ‘unimaginable’; a sure sign that they have started to imagine it.