How Did Juncker Become President of the European Commission?

Article published on July 1, 2014
Article published on July 1, 2014

Fri­day af­ter­noon, stormy in Brus­sels and the day of the Coun­cil of Eu­rope. A day after visiting Ypres, rav­aged a cen­tury be­fore by the First World War, heads of state and gov­ern­ments were in Brus­sels. Two sub­jects lay at the heart of their ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Ha­be­mus Pres­i­dent of the European Commission! In Brussels, on Fri­day June 27th, heads of state and gov­ern­ments agreed to nom­i­nate a new figure to lead this in­sti­tu­tion. For almost three weeks now, Jean-Claude Juncker has been presented as the most likely can­di­date. The news came in the mid­dle of afternoon tea (and a storm), but how did this hap­pen?

Right WIng Takes the EUropean Elections

In order to follow the storyline, we must re­turn to the night of Sun­day May 25th. The re­sults of the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions are clear: even if the right wing (the Eu­ro­pean Peo­ple's Party, EPP — Editor) lost nearly 50 seats, it re­mains the most im­por­tant party in the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment. Due to the Eu­roscep­tic vote, the left failed to gather enough votes. Even if we add the so­cial­ists, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, rad­i­cal left and the centre together, no al­ter­na­tive ma­jor­ity emerges. Juncker is cho­sen by Par­lia­ment, in­clud­ing by his op­po­nents for the Pres­i­dency of the Com­mis­sion, as the victorious 'can­di­date' from the elec­tion re­sults, and thus, is de­mo­c­ra­tically elected. 

But, as you prob­a­bly already know, the can­di­date for the Com­mis­sion is ap­pointed by the Coun­cil of Europe or the heads of state, 'based on the results of the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions.' In the­ory, things are pretty sim­ple.

"English Gentlemen, Fire first"

But voilà. Some states do not agree with this opin­ion. First, British Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. Slapped by the Eu­roscep­tic UKIP led by Nigel Farage in the last elections, the leader has promised a ref­er­en­dum on  British membership in the EU in 2017. Meanwhile, the gen­eral elec­tions of 2015 (the leg­isla­tive elec­tions in which a new PM will be elected — Editor) are approaching. As he is under pres­sure, Cameron re­fuses to vote for Juncker, to use his veto and den­i­grates (echoed by the British press) the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of Lux­em­bourg, depicting him as a man of the past. Ac­cord­ing to Cameron, only the states should choose the Pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion.

Ini­tially, this is also what An­gela Merkel hoped for. As usual, the pow­er­ful Ger­man Chan­cel­lor has flipflopped and intends to chal­lenge the re­sults of the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions (even though her own party cam­paigned for Juncker when he was nominated for the elec­tions — Editor). She hesitates and then tries to build a coalition with her coun­ter­parts in the Nether­lands and Swe­den. The image taken by the AFP of the four prime min­is­ters in a boat was widely shared on Twitter and reveals the charm of this mini-coali­tion, and by den­i­grat­ing Juncker, dismisses the emer­gence of a Eu­ro­pean democ­racy.

The Only Vote of its Kind

However, the pres­sure is too much to bear. In favour of a nascent democ­racy, a new word en­ters the Eu­ro­pean vo­cab­u­lary: 'Spitzenkan­di­dat' (des­ig­nated leader — Editor). Merkel changes her mind. Her party, the CDU, sup­ports Juncker; meanwhile, the So­cial De­moc­rats (SPD) rec­og­nise their defeat and rush to sup­port Juncker. Even Tsipras, the Greek can­di­date from the rad­i­cal left, ad­mits it takes someone from Luxembourg, a coun­try with dubious tax laws, to be Pres­i­dent of the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion. For 15 days, the Euro-bub­ble is di­vided be­tween the United King­dom and the rest. The British press is entertaining with its dramatic headlines including Juncker has Nazi par­ents or Juncker drinks co­gnac for break­fast.

Know­ing that he was not in a favourable po­si­tion (es­pe­cially since he did not propose an alternative), David Cameron dares to break with Eu­ro­pean con­sen­sus, leaving himself to become a col­lat­eral vic­tim. It has been 30 years since the heads of state had a split vote. Thus, Juncker was elected this stormy Friday in Brussels, 26 votes against two (UK and Hun­gary — two right-wing gov­ern­ments — Editor).

Revolution? Redirection?

The vote ends a decade of José Manuel Barroso's leadership in the Berlay­mont (head­quar­ters of the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion — Editor), a term that no one will regret in the end. However, to say that Jean-Claude Juncker is the right legitimate candidate is still a stretch. In­deed, he is le­git­i­mate but ... 

59-year-old Juncker assures that he is Barroso's clone (who is 58), and therefore, it will be business as usual, following the path set out by the Portuguese. He entered the gov­ern­ment of Luxembourg at age 28, playing a part in the negotiations of the Treaty of Maastricht in the late 1980s, be­fore be­com­ing Pres­i­dent of the Eu­rogroup (i.e. 'Mr. Euro') dur­ing the dark­est hours the pub­lic debt cri­sis. 

On July 16th, it will be time for the MEPs to vote to confirm Juncker's new position. In other words, the last op­por­tu­nity for some voices to rise against the sta­tus quo of lead­ers in Brussels and the last chance to give a facelift to Eu­ro­pean elites.