The Democratic Deficit Europeans Vote, Merkel Decides
Before the European Parliament election last month, voters were told the poll would also determine the next Commission president. In a silent putsch against the electorate, Angela Merkel is now impeding the process. She fears a loss of power and Britain's EU exit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had hardly begun her speech last Friday before she got right to the point. With her hands set on the podium in front of her in the Regensburg University auditorium, she said: "I am engaging in all discussions in the spirit that Jean-Claude Juncker should become president of the European Commission." German news agency DPA immediately sent out a headline reading: "Merkel: Juncker To Be EU Commission President."
And yet, if that is what she really wanted, it's a goal she could have achieved as early as last Tuesday. Instead, she opted against it. One can, of course, choose to believe the words Merkel delivered last Friday in Regensburg. Or one can focus more on her actions. Thus far, her actions have spoken a different language. It is the language of one for whom the voters are secondary.
The European Union election at the end of May has led to an unprecedented power struggle between the European Parliament and the European Council, made up of the 28 EU heads of state and government. It is a vote that could change the EU more than any past European election. The next several weeks will determine just how democratic the EU wants to be, whether the balance of power in Brussels will have to be readjusted and whether Merkel is really the leader of Europe. With European Social Democrats set to play a key role in the EU struggle, the immediate future could also determine the stability of Merkel's own governing coalition in Berlin, which pairs her conservatives with the SPD.
Should the European Parliament get its way in naming the next European Commission president, it would mark a significant shift of power away from EU leaders, and they likely wouldn't get it back. It is a development that would make the European Union more democratic and more like a nation-state. But that is exactly what Britain wants to avoid, and any such development could drive the country out of the EU.
Betrayal of Voters
Should Parliament be defeated, it would be tantamount to the betrayal of all voters who believed that the election victor would become the next European Commission president. Merkel herself, at a campaign rally one day before the election, urged people to "use your vote to ensure that Jean-Claude Juncker becomes the president of the European Commission." Democracy suffers if such an exhortation loses its validity once the ballots have been cast.
The search for a solution to the dilemma reveals several vital questions: Which legitimation is stronger for a politician, that stemming from a European election or that from a national election? And which of the following carries more weight: the European Parliament majority behind Jean-Claude Juncker, the German parliamentary majority behind Angela Merkel or the House of Commons majority behind British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is opposed to Juncker?
In short: What do the European people want and how should that be determined?
One can assume that Angela Merkel would prefer to avoid such questions entirely. Striding purposefully into democratic terra incognita isn't really her thing. She considers the current balance of power in Brussels and the cohesion of the EU to be more important than the results of an election -- particularly given that, in many countries, the vote's outcome was more a reflection of domestic political frustrations than a broader statement on European issues. If it became necessary, the chancellor would sacrifice Juncker, as long as it didn't look as though she were ignoring the outcome of the May vote. But to avoid damage to Merkel, Juncker himself would have to withdraw his candidacy. And that, for the moment, doesn't appear likely.
No Clear Guidance in Treaty
It comes down to who, in the end, is responsible for choosing the next head of the Commission, a body of 33,000 employees that is in charge of proposing new legislation and monitoring compliance with EU treaties. Is it up to the voters? Or up to the governments of EU member states? The relevant EU treaty provides no clear guidance. But recent days have shown that both sides are laying claim to the responsibility. And one person above all: Angela Merkel.
The chancellor generally prefers to approach things methodically, but since election day on May 25, the situation has moved forward with astonishing speed. Jean-Claude Juncker, together with the center-left lead candidate Martin Schulz, made the first move. And Merkel was taken by surprise.
By midnight on election day, it had become clear that Juncker's conservatives were in the lead. "It is no longer a neck-and-neck race," one Schulz advisor was heard to mumble. The SPD candidate himself had just flown from Berlin to Brussels and had one more appointment on that Sunday night: a meeting with his opponent who was now to become his ally.
At 1:15 a.m. in the wee hours of Monday, Juncker -- surrounded by a throng of journalists and photographers -- arrived at the European Parliament building. He jumped into the elevator and rode up to the ninth floor where Schulz, the outgoing parliamentary president, has his office.
The two drank to Juncker's victory, with the conservative saying: "I believe I won. I want to become Commission president." But Juncker knew that to achieve that goal, he would need center-left support in both the European Parliament and in the European Council of EU leaders. Which is why Juncker on that Monday morning offered Schulz the possibility of working together in a grand coalition, pairing the center-right with the center-left, and proposed that Schulz become the Commission's deputy chief. "I want cooperation among equals," Juncker said. "You are a real European and I appreciate that." The two then shook hands on the deal and Juncker left Schulz's office 45 minutes after he arrived.
The pact, though, was about more than just dictating to the Council who the Commission president should be. It was also tantamount to telling Merkel who the German representative on the Commission would be. It was the first shot in a battle that would continue the next day.
On Tuesday morning, European Social Democrats made it official: They threw their support behind European People's Party front-man Juncker, giving him the necessary majority in European Parliament. The move also came with an additional advantage. By bowing to his adversary, Schulz also recognized the results of the election. From then on, it looked to the public as though the parliament was on their side.
It is a situation the body sought to benefit from. But it did so perhaps too quickly and too eagerly, as events would soon make clear.
A Deliberate Challenge
At 11:30 a.m. on Monday morning, the heads of all the factions in the European Parliament gathered for a meeting. Until just two days previous, they had been campaigning against one another, but now it was time to join forces against the European Council, a body whose powers bloated to extreme levels during the euro crisis. Schulz, still parliamentary president, chaired the proceedings. The first thing he said upon entering the conference room is that Juncker was the clear victor of the election and that "according to the rules, the strongest candidate begins with the negotiations." Then the doors were closed.
In the meeting, Schulz presented a draft of a letter to Council President Herman Van Rompuy which he had composed the previous evening together with the floor leaders from the conservatives and the liberals. The letter made it clear that parliamentary consultations had "the goal of determining the candidate for the office of Commission president."
The missive was a clear and deliberate challenge to the Council. If the parliament's plan were to be implemented, it would mean that the Commission president would no longer be the product of closed-door horse-trading among the 28 EU leaders. And that would be a significant novelty.
Parliamentarians even found a protocol in the Lisbon Treaty strengthening their position. In the 11th Declaration, it states that "representatives of the European Parliament and of the European Council will ... conduct the necessary consultations" relating to the choosing of the Commission president. MEPs have concluded from the declaration that parliament carries equal weight in the decision. In the letter that was ultimately presented to Council President Van Rompuy, parliamentarians threw their support behind the election victor: "The candidate of the largest group, Mr. Jean Claude Juncker, will be the first to attempt to form the required majority."
A Parliamentary 'Putsch'
When Merkel landed in Brussels a short time later and was informed of parliament's intentions, the word "putsch" was used -- a parliamentary putsch. Merkel is well aware that there are many EU leaders who are unwilling to be forced into anything by European Parliament. Some, like Britain's David Cameron or Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, aren't just opposed to parliament's growing influence, but also have a problem with Juncker himself. They see him as being too enthusiastic about European federalism, too used up and too old fashioned.
Merkel herself wanted to stay in the background for as long as possible. But by midday on Monday, she knew that the situation would escalate.
In the afternoon, leading European Social Democrats met in central Brussels and threw their unanimous support behind Juncker as the next Commission president. "The others have won," said Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. "Jean-Claude Juncker has the first move."
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the German Social Democratic Party, was also present. "Stay cool," he warned. "Angela Merkel will stay cool too." The election of Juncker, he said, is "not automatic. It won't be easy." Were the EPP (European conservatives) unable to unite behind Juncker, "that would neither be a good sign for the EPP nor for the German chancellor," Gabriel said.
'Declaration of War'
As the Social Democrats were meeting, Merkel was in the Academy Palace just a few hundred meters away for a meeting with top European conservatives. And she was furious. The course taken by Parliament, she fumed, is an "outrage" and the letter is a "declaration of war."
But then, the unexpected happened. Jean-Claude Juncker, who was present in his capacity as lead conservative candidate, took the floor and contradicted Merkel. According to the Lisbon Treaty, he says, the goal should be that of finding an appropriate candidate. "We should be happy that European Parliament acted so quickly," he said. It seemed as though he were unaware that the German chancellor was preparing for battle.
What followed was an exchange in a tone that those present had likely never experienced before. The factions in the new European Parliament hadn't even been established yet, Merkel fulminated, and the majorities remain totally unclear. Furthermore, she said, the letter from parliament was brought over by outgoing floor leaders.
"There is such a thing as parliamentary continuity," Juncker countered. He says that the new floor leaders-designate had also signed off: Manfred Weber from Germany for the conservatives and Martin Schulz for the Socialists. But Merkel wasn't in in the mood to stand down. It's not only about personnel, she said, the Council also wants to discuss the next Commission's agenda. It should, she said, focus on European competitiveness, more jobs, better regulations for finance and business and less Brussels involvement in second-tier national issues.
'Only Over My Dead Body'
But Merkel's proposal made it sound as though she were playing for time. And it made Juncker furious. The Commission's agenda, he fumed, would be set by the next Commission president. "It does not concern the Council," he seethed, adding "only over my dead body!"
In the end, the conservative party heads managed to agree on a joint statement: 1. Juncker is our candidate. 2. The Council acknowledges the letter from European Parliament. 3. Van Rompuy will lead the consultations with Juncker and the European Parliament.
But it was a fragile peace which had already disintegrated by dinner time two hours later.
At 7 p.m., heads of state and government gathered in the European Council building. Ten of those present were Social Democrats, 12 were conservative and the rest were liberals or unaffiliated. It seemed paradoxical: One Social Democrat after the next threw their support behind the conservative Juncker. "Juncker is our man," said Austrian Chancellor Faymann. French President François Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Reniz and Belgian leader Elio Di Rupo said the same. Some conservative heads of government likewise stood by the election victor, including Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, Nikos Anastasiadis from Cyprus, Finnish Premier Jyrki Katainen and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
But then, it was the turn of the doubters. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that Juncker was the worst possible choice. Frederik Reinfeldt from Sweden referred to his country's parliament and said he didn't have the authority to discuss personnel adding that "it's too early for that." Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that he didn't have anything against Juncker personally but that it was paramount to avoid an automatic link between the lead candidate in the campaign and the office of Commission president.
Finally, David Cameron took the floor. It would be a mistake to politicize the Commission by way of the lead candidates, he said. "The European Commission isn't like a national government, it has to remain impartial," he said. It isn't up to European Parliament to choose a candidate that we then simply approve later, he said adding that "we are all elected heads of government; we don't have any less democratic legitimacy than the European Parliament."
- Part 1: Europeans Vote, Merkel Decides
- Part 2: Merkel's Not-So-Grand Plan