Britain vs Europe, yet again

The race for the new head of the European Commission – effectively, prime minister of the EU – is hotting up. Well, sort of. In fact there’s still only one contender in the field, Luxembourg Christian Democrat Jean-Claude Juncker, and despite a general lack of enthusiasm there’s not much doubt that he’ll get the job. But the war of words between Britain and its continental partners is revealing a lot about how the EU works.

British prime minister David Cameron has been vowing to do everything he can to block Juncker’s appointment, including calling for an actual vote – a rare thing – in the European Council, the body (consisting of EU heads of government) that will meet on Friday to formally nominate a candidate for president of the Commission. That nomination will then go to the European parliament for approval.

I’ve talked before about Juncker’s negatives for the job: principally, that he represents “business as usual” at a time when voters seem to have just indicated that they’re pretty unhappy about that. And that’s reflected in the equivocal attitude taken by many leaders. As the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt remarks, “very few officials or heads of government believe [Juncker] is the best man to lead the EU at a moment of growing disenchantment with the European project.”

Nonetheless, Juncker has been endorsed by the two largest political groups in the parliament: the centre-right European People’s Party (to which he belongs) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Despite being nominally on opposite sides, the two have traditionally controlled the parliament in an informal coalition.

At last month’s election, centre-right and centre-left between them won just under 55% of the vote, and 412 of the 751 seats. So even if there are a few defectors along the way, it’s hard to see Juncker losing a vote in parliament.

But Cameron’s opposition isn’t just about Juncker’s personal qualities; it represents a different way of looking at the process. The parliament has been trying to move to a more active role, like a regular national parliament, and both centre-right and centre-left justify their support for Juncker by saying that the centre-right won the largest share of seats and he went into the election as its endorsed candidate. (The BBC expressed this position by saying the elections “had returned a centre-right majority”, which is a deeply peculiar way of describing 221 seats out of 751.)

For Cameron and his supporters, however, that’s not how they want the EU to work. The prime minister said it “would be an irreversible step which would hand power from the European Council to the European Parliament,” and that it would “politicise” the work of the Commission. In a longer article on the subject he complained that “It would shift power from national governments to the European Parliament without voters’ approval.”

I’m not unsympathetic to the British position here. I don’t think Juncker is the right choice, the left-right collaboration makes me deeply uneasy, and there’s no doubt that the European parliament lacks many of the features that would give it democratic legitimacy. But giving up on responsible government strikes me as a step backwards, particularly when it cuts across the usual narrative about what’s wrong with the EU.

Some readers might be sick of me talking about the hypocrisy of the EU’s opponents (e.g. here and here), but I really think this is a point worth stressing. Eurosceptics say they’re opposed to the EU for being unaccountable, bureaucratic and lacking in democracy (perfectly legitimate criticisms), but at the same time they’re at the forefront of opposition to moves that might address those problems. Those who actually put their hands up to support greater democratisation turn out almost invariably to be strongly pro-European.

It’s true that the European parliament and other EU institutions suffer from a democratic deficit, but going backwards is not much of a solution.

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