Change at the top in the EU

Even supporters of the European Union – of whom I am basically one – regularly tear their hair out on contemplation of its weirdly bureaucratic procedures.

Readers will probably recall the appointment of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as the new president of the European Commission. He was confirmed by the European parliament in July and will take office at the beginning of November. Now the heads of government of the EU members, who meet collectively as the European Council, have completed the roster of senior appointments by naming Poland’s Donald Tusk as the new president of the European Council and Italy’s Federica Mogherini as High Representative.

In some ways this is less arcane than it seems. Juncker is basically to be prime minister of the EU; the European Commission is his ministry, and Mogherini will be foreign minister. Tusk will not be a member of the Commission, but rather a sort of non-executive president, like a head of state in a Westminster system.

Calling things by their more usual names would make the system seem a bit more relevant and comprehensible, which is what Eurosceptics claim to want. But it would also make the EU seem more like a country in its own right – the dreaded federal Europe – which of course is very much what they don’t want. As usual, Euroscepticism involves trying to have your cake and eat it too.

The EU’s opaque procedures are the product of something of an unholy alliance between national governments, who don’t want European integration to get out of control, and EU bureaucrats, who like integration but don’t much like democratic accountability.

If the EU was a normal country, Juncker would choose his own ministry (or “Commission”), subject only to being able to win and retain the confidence of a parliamentary majority. Tusk would act as a figurehead and impartial arbiter, and the heads of the national governments, as the equivalent of state premiers, would mind their own business.

But the European Council is never likely to agree to being shunted out of the picture like that. And a move to real parliamentary government would also threaten the position of the bureaucrats by letting party politics into the system and undermining their beloved consensus style of government.

Juncker already comes to the job with a good deal of baggage. Two governments – Britain and Hungary – voted against his appointment, and many others evidently had reservations. Now Mogherini also seems to have been greeted without much enthusiasm. She has been foreign minister of Italy only since February and, according to the BBC, “the Baltic states and Poland saw her as inexperienced and too soft on Russia.”

Tusk, on the other hand, has been a very successful leader of Poland. He will take over the EU job in December, shortly after the seventh anniversary of his election as prime minister. His centre-right Civic Platform party will have to find itself a new leader for elections in about a year’s time, at which it will be seeking a third term of office.

That sort of democratic process, however, is still some way removed from the way the upper levels of the EU conduct themselves.

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