Europe has spoken but it didn’t say Juncker

Article published on June 5, 2014
Article published on June 5, 2014

Mar­tin Schulz, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, Jean-Claude Juncker, Ska Keller, Alexis Tsipras. There is a good chance that these names do not ring a bell even though you may have in­di­rectly voted for them in the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions. The European Parliament now considers Juncker the rightful heir of current Commission president Barroso. But they are wrong.

Event A: five po­lit­i­cal groups in the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment put for­ward a lead­ing can­di­date for the post of Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent be­fore the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions.

Event B: EU cit­i­zens vote in Eu­ro­pean elec­tions with­out know­ing these can­di­dates and with­out know­ing how their vote could in­flu­ence the next Com­mis­sion pres­i­dency.

Query: On what plane of ex­is­tence do these events lead to a de­mo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent?

What is what? Who is who?

Mar­tin Schulz, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, Jean-Claude Juncker, Ska Keller, Alexis Tsipras. There is a good chance that these names do not ring a bell un­less you are em­ployed in Brus­sels, a stu­dent of EU pol­i­tics, or a close fam­ily mem­ber, but it is pos­si­ble that you in­di­rectly voted for them in the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions. For the pur­pose of full dis­clo­sure: Juncker leads the party group with the most seats in Par­lia­ment and his col­leagues be­lieve that he is the right­ful heir of cur­rent Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jose Manuel Bar­roso.

But they are wrong. The Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment has tried to in­flu­ence the choice for the next head of the EU’s ex­ec­u­tive branch by sim­pli­fy­ing a com­pli­cated pro­ce­dure. There is, how­ever, an­other way to look at the elec­tion re­sults which in­di­cates that Juncker would be the worst pos­si­ble choice for the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dency.

If the EU’s lead­ers can take away one thing from the out­come of the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions, it would be that cit­i­zens are un­happy with the EU’s cur­rent path. They are not nec­es­sar­ily anti Eu­rope, but France and Britain’s swing to the far right and Por­tu­gal and Greece’s move to the left in­di­cate that a sta­tus quo is no longer ac­cept­able. The vote for ex­tremes is a vote against aus­ter­ity.

Elect­ing Juncker, a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian de­mo­c­ra­tic clone of Bar­roso who is pos­si­bly even more colour­less and un­charis­matic, would there­fore be prob­lem­atic. The for­mer prime min­is­ter of Lux­em­bourg does not, in any way, per­son­ify a change in EU pol­icy. To counter Eu­roscep­tics, Eu­rope needs a leader that can in­spire hope: a sym­bol of a dy­namic Eu­rope.

The EPP’s choice for Juncker has thus posed the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil with a prob­lem in that he is now the most lob­bied and least de­sir­able per­son for the post. The search for a new pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion may there­fore be back at square one.

If the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil de­cided to waive Juncker’s claim to the throne, it might re­sult in a lit­tle dis­sat­is­fac­tion from peo­ple who will crit­i­cise the fact that the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent will once again be un­de­mo­c­ra­t­i­cally cho­sen.

This crit­i­cism would be mis­placed though. Con­sid­er­ing Juncker a de­mo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent would pre­sup­pose that peo­ple con­sciously voted for an EPP party know­ing their vote would also be a vote for Juncker.

This is not the case. EU­ob­server took to the streets in five dif­fer­ent mem­ber states and con­firmed that which we al­ready knew: very few peo­ple have heard of the Spitzenkan­di­daten and fewer still were aware of how their vote in the elec­tions could in­flu­ence the next Com­mis­sion pres­i­dency.

More­over, the elec­tion re­sults give the Eu­ro­pean lead­ers plenty of rea­son to de­fend their de­ci­sion to ig­nore Juncker. His po­lit­i­cal group lost 61 of its MEPs, more than any other group. Com­bined with a stronger left block and more far right politi­cians in the Par­lia­ment, ap­point­ing some­one else could still be ex­plained as hav­ing lis­tened to the voter.

But to avoid the same prob­lem with other nom­i­nees, they will have to se­lect some­one from the out­side. After all, a strong ob­jec­tion to the nom­i­na­tion of Schulz, Ver­hof­s­tadt, and Juncker as can­di­dates for the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dency was that, de­spite being from dif­fer­ent party groups, they are more or less the same. All of them are Eu­ro­pean fed­er­al­ists that were con­sid­ered too much em­bed­ded in the Brus­sels bub­ble.

This is ex­actly what made peo­ple choose for ex­trem­ist par­ties in the first place. If peo­ple want change and they are not able to dis­tin­guish be­tween so­cial de­moc­rats, Chris­t­ian de­moc­rats and lib­er­als, they will in­evitably end up vot­ing for some­one with a dif­fer­ent sound.

But who else?

Many al­ter­na­tives have been re­viewed in the past week. IMF top ex­ec­u­tive Chris­tine La­garde has fre­quently been linked to the job while, most re­cently, her party mem­ber Michel Barnier and for­mer Dutch prime min­is­ter Jan Peter Balke­nende are ru­moured to be pos­si­ble ‘com­pro­mise can­di­dates’. The prob­lem with La­garde, Barnier, and Balke­nende is that they are all cen­tre-right politi­cians favour­ing aus­ter­ity mea­sures.

En­rico Letta, a left-lean­ing Chris­t­ian de­mo­c­rat from Ital­ian prime min­is­ter Renzi’s party, may there­fore be more suit­able. How­ever, with Mario Draghi as cur­rent pres­i­dent of the Eu­ro­pean Cen­tral Bank it is sta­tis­ti­cally un­likely that an­other high pro­file po­si­tion will go to an Ital­ian.

Tony Blair might be an ex­cel­lent can­di­date too. He may di­vide pub­lic opin­ion at home but he could nonethe­less be the charis­matic fig­ure that can con­vinc­ingly make the pro Eu­rope ar­gu­ment.

In the end the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil might still go with Juncker and com­fort it­self with the thought that the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent is not the only top job in Brus­sels. This would be a mis­take. The EPP’s vic­tory was a Pyrrhic vic­tory and the fact that its in­flu­ence in the Par­lia­ment de­creased by 22% re­con­firms that Chris­t­ian democ­racy is de­clin­ing in Eu­rope. In ad­di­tion, it would be very op­ti­mistic to con­clude that Juncker has a de­mo­c­ra­tic man­date when the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of vot­ers out­side Brus­sels have never even heard of him.

The new head of the Com­mis­sion has to be a break from con­ser­v­a­tive aus­ter­ity pol­icy; a pow­er­ful leader that can chal­lenge anti-EU rhetoric. At the same time, this new face of Eu­rope should be will­ing to push through nec­es­sary re­forms in­stead of plung­ing Eu­rope into a fed­er­a­tion when its cit­i­zens are pulling on the hand­brake. Juncker does not have any of these qual­i­ties.

Eu­rope has spo­ken, but in­stead of putting words into the mouths of its cit­i­zens, EU lead­ers should lis­ten to what they re­ally said: end aus­ter­ity, pause in­te­gra­tion, start re­forms.