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Must Juncker be appointed as the next President of the European commission?

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Following the electoral campaign for the European Parliament, there is no easy way to resolve the nomination of the next Commission’s president. The European Council’s proposition needs a very careful analysis of each solution’s strengths and weaknesses – or else it will ensure a durable mess.





The recent European Parliamentary election has been followed by much uproar concerning the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ or ‘leading candidate system’ chosen for the Commission presidency. This is understandable, considering both the position’s importance, and that this is the first time the Lisbon Treaty has been applied in this matter. However, we should not increase the present confusion among the public. For example, on one side, the candidates, headed by Mr Juncker, explain that the party with the highest votes must get the job. On the other side, some national leaders, led by Mr Cameron, affirm that the European Council can do whatever it wants. Paradoxically, both sides are wrong.

In this debate, three elements matter: the new Treaty text, the electoral promises made during the campaign, and the context.

First, the Treaty. According to Article 17(7) of the EU Treaty introduced at Lisbon, ‘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 implies consequences. (1) The Council proposes, the Parliament disposes. So those who speak about an ‘appointment’ by the Council are wrong.  (2) The Council must take into consideration the results of the election, but it has a margin of appreciation, otherwise the text has no meaning. So those who speak about a ‘right’ to be chosen are also wrong. There is no obligation to nominate anybody precisely. Nonetheless, the need to ultimately obtain a majority in the Parliament is quite relevant.

Secondly, the electoral promises. All the main political parties have chosen a spitzenkandidat for the European Commission’s presidency. They have made these declarations loudly in most (not all) Member States. The heads of government know that very well. They are strongly connected to the political parties, since they meet quite regularly and publicly in this context. The Treaty text did not make this mandatory, but it was decided nonetheless – and rightly. An election must matter, and the stakes were much clearer for the voters this way. Given this background, those who say the Council has no constraints acting on it are especially wrong.

This constraint remains far from absolute, however. For example, if the entire Parliamentary election had produced the same result as in France, there would not be many people pleading today for the nomination of Mme Le Pen to the presidency. If the centre left had the majority in the European Council (quod non), the heads of government could be tempted to nominate a centre-left candidate to be considered by a centre-right Parliament. They should resist such a temptation. At the end of the day, the decision belongs to the Parliament, not the Council. The system’s new logic is parliamentary, not diplomatic. This is the keystone, and it must be taken into consideration. This change is not accepted by those who want the system used in 1995, 1999 or 2004 to be rolled out again. Considering these promises, the European Council’s margin of appreciation must be used extremely carefully.

Thirdly, the context must be seen. Many people in many circles deplore the lack of connection between the actions of the EU and its citizens. The election’s results were a strong sign. We must thus weigh the consequences of the various options against them.

On one side, we have people like Juncker, Schultz or Verhofstadt. None is perfect, of course. M. Juncker, for example, looks tired. To be honest, his talent for continental communication has appeared quite limited during the campaign. He has had a real crisis in the management of the secret service in his country to deal with, and he managed it badly. Additionally, having a third Commission president from Luxembourg would be quite farcical. It would say much less about the greatness of Luxembourg than about the smallness of Europe. Nonetheless, Juncker certainly possesses a bright intelligence, a lot of European experience, and he knows how to win elections – both in Luxembourg (even after his security débacle) and the EPP Group, at least.

On the other side, however, we have people whose comparative superiority is not very impressive: Katainen, Thorning-Schmidt, Barnier, Lagarde, Reinfeld, Kenny, etc. None possesses the same level of experience. Some of them are basically unknown beyond their national borders. None of them is considered a brilliant communicator. Lagarde has never stood for an election, and she has now excluded herself.

Additionally, the weight of the euro is underestimated in this debate. The next five years will be crucial for the euro’s future, which remains rocky. Will the (euro) majority of the Member States entrust this delicate situation to a president from a non-eurozone state (Reinfeld or Thorning-Schmidt)? It is unclear. With the eurozone candidates, the problem changes. Katainen will be perceived as too hardcore, and Kenny or Barnier as too peripheral. There lies another Juncker advantage. He has pleaded both for serious restructuring programmes in the peripheral States, and for solidarity in the core States.

In the end, there is no splendid alternative candidate who’s guaranteed to gather a strong Parliamentary majority. It is difficult not to conclude that Juncker’s main inconvenience resides in his parliamentary legitimacy. Interestingly, many commentators (especially British ones) who criticize the concept of Spitzenkandidaten itself are often those who stigmatize the unacceptable lack of democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions on other occasions (one must always take care not to lose a very good enemy).

Basically, the European Council must choose between two options. Each of them presents problems. It can nominate Juncker (Option A), and see how he manages with the Parliament. Further surprises might then arise. In this case, the Council could ask first for more clarification about the proposed programme of action. Or it can nominate someone else (Option B). This person will then enter a dark room. He/she will need to find a majority in the Parliament. The Parliament will know that this approval will provoke a substantial reduction of its influence. Such conditions do not appear, to say the least, very favourable. Stonewalling, leading to a strong, and possibly long, institutional conflict, is quite possible. Even if the appointed person finds a majority, he/she will remain in a difficult position. Moreover, this will give free rein to people in most Member States to claim endlessly during the next five years that (a) electoral promises have not been respected, (b) the Treaty has not been respected, and (c) voting for the Parliament has no meaning. One can debate these arguments, but must entertain no doubt at all that they will repeatedly be made. Option B will certainly not improve the disconnect between EU actions and EU citizens – on the contrary.

In the end, the lessons of this episode are quite simple. If you do not want someone nominated, do not push that person to the top of the list. And if you do not want something to happen after the election, do not endorse it during the election. Because when the music stops you have to put your vote where your mouth has been, or risk serious problems.


Charles Secondat


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(Photo credit: tiseb, Flickr)