The row over the future Commission President risks to be a 'rupture point' for the United Kingdom in the EU

Wednesday, 4. June 2014     1 comment(s)
Niklas Helwig
Senior Research Fellow - The European Union research programme

Over the course of last week, the question whether Jean-Claude Juncker becomes President of the European Commission became more than just a question of political party lines, personalities, or institutional power plays in Brussels. David Cameron’s strong resistance against the European Parliament candidate Juncker sparked a debate on the United Kingdom’s future as part of the EU. Today, Angela Merkel in a speech to the German Bundestag felt obliged to clarify that she wants the United Kingdom to remain in the EU, while at the same time reiterating her support for Juncker. The EU power-struggles, especially between Germany and Britain, have the potential to be a ‘rupture point’ for the EU. 

Three divisions can be identified around the question of who will become the next President of the European Commission. It started with a classical competition between political camps during the European Parliament elections. After the conservatives won the elections, the European Parliament united behind Juncker as their common candidate. The political contest quickly transformed into an institutional clash in Brussels last week: heads of state or government in the European Council refused to accept the European Parliament candidate. For them, an automatic nomination without any prior negotiation would have set a precedent in the future relations with the European Parliament and shifted power relations significantly towards the latter. German chancellor Angela Merkel refused to interpret Juncker as the logical choice for Commission President. After getting under pressure by the German media
and the Social Democratic coalition partner, German chancellor Angela Merkel shifted her position slightly last Friday and pronounced that she is "holding all talks in this spirit that Jean-Claude Juncker should become Commission President”.

The clear commitment of Cameron to block Juncker during last week’s European Council, however, lowered the hopes for a quick compromise. The third and potentially most hazardous divide exists between the different concepts of the future of European integration on the continent and in Britain. The division is nothing new, given the ongoing debate on EU treaty renegotiation. Yet, the present situation has the potential of accelerating the dynamics on the island further. One just has to read the comments of think tanks and newspapers in the United Kingdom and in Germany to witness two fundamentally different narratives of the present situation. The Financial Times in London is very outspoken in its campaign against Juncker. For chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman, the nomination of Juncker is a threat to European democracy
. He makes no secret of his belief that democracy can only work within nation states. A pan-European democratic system cannot function without a European demos. The Spitzenkandidaten system was a theater of the European Parliament which cannot connect to voters. Hence, the democratically elected heads of states or government should not bow before the members of the European Parliament and refuse Juncker at all costs. The Eurosceptic think tank Open Europe drives a similar anti-Juncker campaign, while the more EU-friendly Centre for European Reform fears a weakening of the European Commission when its Presidents continue to emerge as a result from a flawed election process.

The public discourse in Germany is fundamentally different. The dominant opinion of the media, expressed for example in an article in the biggest newspaper BILD
, is that the rejection of Juncker would seriously harm European democracy and betray the voters. The reason is partly, that the competition between the two German speaking Spitzenkandidaten was much more prominent in the German media before the elections. However, it also corresponds with a fundamentally different and still mostly accepted vision of a European Union with more federal and pan-European democratic elements. The public support for the European project is still at 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the Germans want to see the winning European Parliament party candidate as Commission President. While the Spitzenkandidaten system alienates most of the UK public, Germans can mostly sympathize with a politically integrated European Union and especially understand a federal system from own experience.

Unfortunately, the danger is that the nomination of the Commission President becomes a question of Merkel versus Cameron. Merkel already publicly hinted at the fact that the Commission President can be chosen by qualified majority
 at the European Council meeting end of June, a subtle warning to Cameron that he might be better off to accept Juncker after all. It is technically possible to outvote the United Kingdom and its potential allies Sweden, the Netherlands and Hungary. Politically, however, sidelining Cameron would be a ‘rupture point’ for the EU. Displaying Britain’s weakness will further feed the Eurosceptic forces on the island and accelerate the debate on leaving the Union. The German government did not officially deny reports that Cameron already threatened to leave the EU if Juncker gets elected, like German weekly DER SPIEGEL reported. The liberal democratic deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who often criticized Cameron’s EU policies in the past, is ‘at one’ with the Prime Minister and urges to drop ‘business as usual’, otherwise Britain might be on the way out of the Union.

A rhetoric of division remains a dangerous game. An exit of the United Kingdom is one possible outcome and might be even a favorable solution for some, as there are little signs of a convergence of views on the future of the EU. Yet, Europe’s elites in the national administrations and in the media have to be aware that they indirectly decide on Britain’s future in the EU, when they insist on Juncker or push their own alternative candidates for Commission President. The best way forward is taking the heat out of the debate and to negotiate a solution that is acceptable to the publics in Germany and the UK. Leaders of Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Sweden are due to meet next week in Stockholm. A solution might be for example the nomination of Juncker as Commission President, who has to agree to a UK vision-inspired reform agenda and a British Commissioner with a strong portfolio. After all, Merkel’s method of not clearly positioning herself and leave different options open might have been a wise choice and allow possibilities for a broad consensus.


Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

11.7.2014, Paul Lever

A perceptive analysis. But why don't you now comment on the outcome? A Commission President will take office for whom no-one, not one single person, in Britain voted; who was opposed by the British government and by all the British political parties; and who will probably not be supported by any British member of the European Parliament.

The Germans will say that this is an example of democracy at work. The British people will interpret it as further proof that remaining a member of the EU means accepting that we are no longer a nation state but simply part of a wider European demos.

Your government has supported the German position and your new Prime Minister is one of the most hostile critics of the United Kingdom. Is it really in Finland's interest to encourage Britain leave the EU?

Discuss the topic

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