Three Cheers for European Democracy, 13th June 2014


A Personal View from Brendan Donnelly, June 2014

If Jean-Claude Juncker becomes the next President of the European Commission, it will mark an important development in the democratic life of the European Union. Millions of voters in the recent European Elections will see their favoured candidate take on one of the most important posts in the Union. Millions of other voters who preferred unsuccessful candidates such as Mr. Schulz and Mr. Verhofstadt will be aware that they have participated in a transparent and democratic election, in which their views have not prevailed on this occasion, but may well do so at the next European Elections. It is a strange paradox that precisely in this country, where criticism of the European Union’s supposed democratic inadequacies is widespread, politicians and commentators have been so reluctant to recognize this qualitative change for the democratic betterment of the Union. It has long been a reasonable complaint about the European Elections that the electors did not know for what they were voting. The linking of the European Elections of 2014 to the Presidency of the Commission was a powerful response to this criticism.

One particularly curious misconception often encountered in the British media is that in some way the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty on the election of the Commission President have been perverted or misapplied in the recent European Elections. No such interpretation can survive even a cursory reading of the Treaty. The Treaty instructs the European Council that when it makes its proposal for the Commission Presidency it should “take into account” the results of the preceding European Elections. That is of course a vaguely formulated instruction, but the great majority of the members of the European Council have agreed on a perfectly reasonably interpretation of it. Irrespective of their own political affiliation, they have been willing to support the preferred candidate of the largest political grouping in the new European Parliament, a candidate announced to the voters before and during the European Elections. Many members of the European Council had indeed been vocal before the European Elections in their advocacy of this procedure. For them to have abandoned it after the Elections would have been to treat the European voters with contempt. Mrs. Merkel’s original uncertain support for Mr. Juncker immediately after the European Elections rightly provoked a storm of criticism in Germany, to which she has now prudently and properly yielded. German voters were outraged that on the eve of the European Elections she had urged them to “go out and vote for Jean-Claude Juncker” and then appeared to be refusing to support him herself. No doubt many British commentators would, if she had persisted in it, have been equally happy to criticize Mrs. Merkel’s anti-democratic disingenuousness.

It is true that a limited number of members of the European Council, including the British government, do not wish for personal, ideological or procedural reasons to support Mr. Juncker. Mr. Cameron in particular has made it clear that he does not regard the European Elections as in any serious sense a source of democratic legitimacy. The Lisbon Treaty allows for this difference of view within the European Council to be resolved by a qualified majority vote. Traditionally, the European Council has preferred to operate by consensus rather than by formal votes. Pointed recent remarks from Mr. Renzi and Mrs. Merkel which are clearly directed at what they see as Mr. Cameron’s intransigence in this matter suggest however that a vote may eventually be taken in the European Council. At that vote, there is a good chance that Mr. Juncker will be adopted as the candidate of the European Council as a whole. This can only be a gain for European democracy, with national governments doing precisely what Eurosceptics often urge them to do, namely to listen to the electorate. If the events of 2014 set a precedent for future elections of the Commission President, then that must be welcome to anybody seriously interested in developing democratic structures for the European Union.

It is worth stressing in passing that even when the European Council has put forward its candidate for the Presidency of the Commission, he or she can only become President of the Commission with the support of the high threshold of an absolute majority of the European Parliament. The newly elected Parliament is entitled to apply whatever personal or political criteria it wishes in extending or withholding its support. It would for instance be entirely within its rights to refuse to support in 2014 any other candidate but Mr. Juncker. The Treaty makes clear that the Parliament’s role goes well beyond that of a rubber stamp for the European Council’s decision. The Treaty of Lisbon has radically enhanced the role of the European Parliament in the election of the President of the Commission. Most, but not all the members of the Council have understood this. The two largest groups of the European Parliament, the European People’s Party and the Socialist Party, have agreed to work together over the coming months to ensure that the Parliament remains an effective voice in support of Mr. Juncker.

It was of course predictable that Mr. Cameron should have been unenthusiastic about Mr. Juncker as a potential President of the European Commission. The vehemence of his hostility to the former Luxembourg Prime Minister was perhaps more surprising. No doubt internal political factors played their part, with Mr. Cameron’s opposition to Mr. Juncker distracting some attention from the Conservative Party’s poor performance in the European Elections. Mr. Cameron probably also wished to reassure those in his party who doubt his Eurosceptic zeal that he shares their distrust of federalism and federalists, particularly if they come from Luxembourg. Even so, the Prime Minister’s supposed remark that the United Kingdom was more likely to leave the Union if Mr. Juncker became Commission President was a strange one. Any attempted renegotiation of the terms of British membership after 2015 will occur primarily with other member states, not with the Commission. It will of course almost certainly be impossible for Mr. Cameron to achieve after 2015 a renegotiation that will satisfy any significant portion of the Conservative Party. But who is Commission President at the time will make little or no difference to this quandary in which a re-elected Mr. Cameron will inevitably find himself.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom have echoed Mr. Cameron’s opposition to Mr. Juncker. In doing so, they appear to endorse the Prime Minister’s dismissal of the European Parliament’s claim to democratic legitimacy and to agree that Mr. Juncker’s Presidency of the Commission would be an intolerable reverse for British interests. One does not have to be a personal admirer of Mr. Juncker or to agree with all his political attitudes to see the laziness and superficiality of such an attitude. Mr. Juncker is a leading European politician whose political group has performed well throughout the Union in a recent democratic election. His views clearly resonate well with wide strata of the European electorate and the European political classes. The local successes of such heterogeneous anti-European parties as the Front National, UKIP and Cinque Stelle should not be used as a thin pretext to doubt the validity of his pan-European mandate. It would be much more profitable if leading British politicians started thinking realistically about how to work constructively with him and those millions who think like him, rather than simply to condemn him as an incarnation of all they think they resent about the European Union. There are of course many issues on which Mr. Juncker and Mr. Cameron would disagree. But the proposition that these differences are so fundamental that they could rationally lead to Britain’s leaving the European Union if through a democratic procedure Mr. Juncker becomes President of the Commission, is a shocking and destructive one. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats should be more mindful than they seem to be of the political and intellectual implications of their support for Mr. Cameron in this matter. The debate surrounding the British political establishment’s rejection of Mr. Juncker as President of the European Commission will not make the winning of any future European referendum easier. On the contrary, it will make it much, perhaps insuperably more difficult.