Europe tries to pick a leader

In the wake of last weekend’s elections to the European parliament, the next task is the selection of a new president of the European Commission – effectively, the prime minister of the European Union. Like most things about the EU, the process is complex and bureaucratic.

In principle, the Commission and its head are responsible to the parliament. Parliament must confirm them in office, but the selection of the president in the first place is made by the European Council – that is, the heads of government of the 28 member states. Article 17(7) of the Treaty of Lisbon provides as follows:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.

So if this was a normal parliamentary regime, the Council’s power would be largely formal, like the governor-general’s in Australia. It would be constrained to appoint the person who could command a majority in the parliament; effectively, the nominee of the majority party or coalition.

But the EU isn’t like that, although it’s hesitantly trying to move in that direction. As I explained last week, this year the major party groups all nominated before the election their preferred candidate for Commission president (often referred to by the German term Spitzenkandidat) and centred around them some of the trappings of a regular election campaign.

The greatest number of seats in the new parliament was won by the centre-right group, the European People’s Party: 214 (out of 751), from 28.5% of the vote. Its nominated candidate for Commission president was Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg. And sure enough, a number of prominent centre-right figures, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, have been lining up to endorse Juncker for the job.

And not just those on the centre-right: veteran Greens leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit announced yesterday that he would be recommending that the 52 Greens MPs should also back Juncker, as a step towards the evolution of EU democracy.

But Juncker has a fair number of negatives as well. He’s very much a conventional politician, not the dynamic force that the EU might seem to need in difficult times. He left office last year in somewhat clouded circumstances, after an inquiry found he had exercised inadequate supervision over Luxembourg’s rogue security service. And if he were appointed, it would mean that fully a quarter of the Commission presidents had been from Luxembourg – an extraordinary proportion for the Union’s second-smallest member.

Most of all, however, opposition focuses on the fact that, despite an election that showed a marked swing towards Euroscepticism, Juncker, one of the architects of the euro, is as pro-integration as they come. David Cameron has threatened that a Juncker presidency could lead to Britain’s exit from the EU, and several leaders from within the EPP are said to have signalled their concern.

French president François Hollande is another who has reservations, although it’s not clear how much that involves opposition to what Juncker stands for and how much is just scheming to put a French candidate in the job, such as former finance minister Pierre Moscovici.

It’s pretty clear that the EU needs to do something to address popular discontent, but of course one of the things driving that discontent is the lack of democratic accountability in the EU’s institutions. So using the old unrepresentative methods to put a reformer at the top might not actually be a step forward.

One of the confusing factors here is the widespread notion that gaining a plurality in an election amounts to “winning”. The EPP has less than a third of the seats in parliament, so there’s no obvious reason why its candidate should be the one to get majority backing. Juncker especially should be conscious of this, because that’s how his party finally lost government in Luxembourg. It emerged, as usual, as the largest party in last October’s election, but the combined opposition of social democrats, Greens and liberals was able to put together a hostile majority.

Nor is that especially unusual. On a quick look, I can find another four EU members – Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy and Sweden – where the largest party in parliament is not in government. Parliamentary government is all about getting to a majority, not just more seats than the next competitor.

The loose, amorphous nature of the EU party groups makes the moral even stronger. If the parliament at some point has to vote (explicitly or not) on a choice between Juncker and some more reformist rival, it’s unlikely that the EPP caucus will all stick together. For that matter, the centre-left is unlikely to do much better.

The road to EU democracy still looks like a crooked path.

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