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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.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

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.

A Pact

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."

Merkel's Not-So-Grand Plan

During a break in the meeting, Cameron's words became even more pointed. "A face from the '80s cannot solve the problems of the next five years," he said. Cameron added that if he is defeated in a vote by the heads of other EU member states and Juncker becomes the head of the Commission, that he could no longer guarantee that Britain will remain a part of the EU. Participants at the meeting interpreted his remarks to mean that a further defeat could destabilize his government in London to the extent that an exit referendum would have to be held earlier than planned and that it would very likely result in the British casting a no vote on EU membership.

For conservative Polish Prime Minister Tusk, it was clear how the majority was leaning and he wanted to force a decision that same night. He proposed assigning Juncker the task of negotiating the composition of the next EU Commission. That, he argued, would reveal the extent of support for Juncker -- in other words, it would show whether a majority was willing to oppose Cameron, Orbán and Reinfeldt. Everyone turned to Merkel. She said that she would join Juncker's opponents and form a "blocking minority," as she called it, if a vote were held. That would have spelled the end of Juncker's candidacy, but the vote never happened.

"A half-sentence from her in Juncker's favor would have taken care of the issue," French President Hollande would later tell people close to him. But Merkel made her decision and Cameron's threat was effective -- the threat of a prime minister whose country is expected to vote in 2017 over whether to leave the EU and whose party suffered a resounding defeat in last week's elections to the European Parliament. He managed to sway a German chancellor to his side who, by contrast, had the majority of Germans behind her in a pro-European vote, a result with which she did very little.

In many other countries, this election could hardly be described as a success among voters. At best, the continuous trend of declining voter turnout was stopped at 43 percent, but almost nowhere did turnout increase. It is precisely this voter fatigue that helped many anti-EU populist parties make phenomenal gains at the ballot box. Viewed from this perspective, Europe appears to have been weakened -- the parties at the fringe are eroding Europe's flanks and uncertainty is growing at the EU's very core.

Still, some 78 percent of Germans surveyed prior to the election in a SPIEGEL poll said they believed that the winner in the Schulz-Juncker race should become head of the Commission. It's an opinion shared by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. "It would be democratically devastating if we said before the election that the winning candidate would become Commission president and then we were to wholly reject that after the election," he said. Faymann has little understanding for Merkel's position. "We are gambling away our credibility among pro-European citizens and strengthening the enemies of Europe."

Looks Like a Conspiracy

More than a few members of the European Council are now wondering whether the chancellor is just trying to buy time, leaving the door open for later compromises. Or whether she is seeking to prevent Juncker from becoming president -- while hiding in the British shadow -- because she doesn't want to see a man appointed president of the European Commission who has the backing of the entire European Parliament and a majority of all European voters. What she is doing may seem prudent from her perspective. But to European voters -- and to some of her counterparts on the Council -- it looks more like a conspiracy.

European Council President Van Rompuy has sought to soothe the different camps. "This is not just about the head of the Commission," he said, adding that it is also a question of the high representative of the Union for foreign affairs. "We also need to discuss the policy program for the next Commission." In the end, Merkel suggested that Van Rompuy should speak with representatives of the governments of all 28 EU member states in order to sound out a solution before the next EU summit at the end of June.

Many disagreed, but they were no longer openly objecting. Merkel's influence proved effective.

One participant at the table, one of those who believed the winning candidate should prevail as the next Commission president, sent SMS texts throughout the meeting to Jean-Claude Juncker.

As the EU leaders met, the former Luxembourg prime minister and Euro Group president sat in a hotel room reading in real-time how Merkel and Van Rompuy, under pressure from Cameron, had distanced themselves from him. With each message he received, he appeared to become even more resolute before determining, "Now I have to do it."

As EU leaders began to leave the meeting after midnight, Juncker's mobile phone started ringing non-stop. In the end, 22 of 28 EU leaders personally called and assured him of their support. "It's Commission president or nothing at all," Juncker told one of them on the phone. He's anticipating that Merkel will soon offer him the position of president of the European Council as Van Rompuy's successor, but he intends to reject it.

Rarely has Merkel been subjected to the kind of pressure she is facing in Brussels right now. At her press conference that night, the German leader didn't hide her annoyance. Addressing the tasks facing the EU in the coming years, she also played down Juncker's importance. "The whole agenda could be implemented by him but also by many others," she said. Of course, the others she referred to were not on the ballot.

'Nobody Really Wants Juncker'

A Merkel staffer remained in the German press room in the European Council headquarters after the chancellor finished her press conference. "Did you see Juncker's appearance on election night, how tired and passionless he appeared to be?" he asked. "If people are now saying that Merkel just buried Juncker, they should really be asking if he buried himself."

In the days that followed, the Merkel camp continued to convey the idea that Juncker somehow didn't truly want the job. They said he often appeared to be burned out, that he doesn't represent the kind of fresh impulse that is needed for Europe and that his supporters wouldn't continue to back him for very long. Their main message, however, was that it is only the German people who are making any fuss whatsoever over what happens with the leading candidates.

And that's only the "light" version of the campaign against the election victor. The heavy lifting in undermining Juncker is being done by the government in London.

"Nobody really wants Juncker, and yet he still has a chance," said one source close to Cameron. She says the resulting product would be a divided and crisis-plagued Europe with a weakened Commission president. She added that Cameron would not hesitate in openly addressing Juncker's faults among EU leaders, "his alcohol problems, his scandals in Luxembourg." And also the question of whether Juncker is suited to lead Europe's most powerful authority, the EU Commission.

Angela Merkel doesn't intend to go that far. Instead, she is pursuing a two-pronged approach. The Brits should be kept in check with the threat that, if need be, a majority vote could be secured without them. That already happened once when member states voted in 2012 to approve the European Fiscal Pact limiting government borrowing over Cameron's vociferous objections. During the next few weeks, there will be many opportunities for the chancellor to exert influence on her British counterpart -- at D-Day commemorations, at joint talks with the Swedish prime minister and at the G-7 meeting.

Meanwhile, Berlin wants to delay decisions on other top posts in Brussels, the goal being that of wearing out Juncker and his supporters in the hope that he might voluntarily eschew the presidency. Previously, all top jobs in Brussels had to be approved by the European Parliament and the European Council. Now, though, the Chancellery has realized, they would have to be rubber stamped by Juncker as well. "Nothing can happen without his yes," Berlin government sources told SPIEGEL.

The Most Time?

And that goes to the heart of the question that will determine Europe's democratic future: Who's got the most time on their side?

Jean-Claude Juncker appears to have less of it. The 59-year-old has seen a lot of Europe, but many Europeans no longer want to see as much of him. He's no friend of the German chancellor and it is true that he initially didn't want this post -- one which he now has to want in order to help establish greater democracy in the European institutions.

With Juncker at its helm, the EU Commission would certainly have stronger political leadership. Precisely because they have a mandate from parliament and voters, he and his commissioners would be in a much stronger position vis-a-vis Brussels' highly self-confident civil service elite . It is also likely that the next European election would attract well-known politicians with the knowledge that if they won, they would automatically become Commission president.

It will be a while before that becomes reality. "If EU leaders (drop Juncker) then they'll need to stay away from parliament for the next five years because it will be a nuclear-waste zone for them," threatened Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German who is leaving parliament after years as the Green Party's intellectual figurehead at the EU level. Meanwhile, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of parliament with Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party, said: "Of course they will try to portray us as self-regarding parliamentarians whose only job is to address procedural matters. But we have all just been re-elected. We have all the time in the world."

One of the main things Juncker will need is the sustained support of Martin Schulz, whose center-left Social Democrats can provide him with the needed majority in a grand coalition in parliament. In return for his support, Schulz wants a post as a commissioner with some kind of elevated status -- a demand that is in no way unusual in such a political constellation.

But Juncker doesn't have the power to guarantee that on his own. Other countries like Poland are also demanding prominent Commission posts and they have some weight in terms of the EU's proportional regional representation. A potentially bigger hitch is that Merkel's CDU is insisting that it choose Berlin's next Commissioner. "It is my party's express wish that the Christian Democrats again select the next German EU Commissioner," said David McAllister, who was the main candidate in the European election for Merkel's Christian Democrats. "Because the CDU and CSU (its Bavarian sister party) became the strongest force after the European election, with an 8 percent lead over the Social Democrats. Essentially, we won the 'German voting district,'" he says. It's an opinion shared by Chancellor Merkel.

Problems in Berlin?

The Social Democrats are against it. They point to Luxembourg, where the Christian Democrats' leading candidate for Europe, Juncker, also received the support of the Social Democrats who share power in the national government. There, the Social Democrats argue, people think in European terms and not national ones. If nothing is left for Schulz despite this, then the Social Democrats' support for Juncker will diminish.

Merkel, for her part, cannot be totally sure about her strategy. A number of EU leaders want a decision to be made by the June summit in Brussels at the latest. "I would like to see us propose Juncker in the European Council in June," said Austrian Chancellor Faymann. "If we are unable to convince the skeptics, then we'll have to push Juncker through with a qualified majority vote."

The dispute over the EU Commission chief is explosive enough that it could also have the power to drive apart the coalition government in Berlin between Merkel's conservatives and the SPD. Social Democrats in Berlin attentively registered the fact that Merkel indicated she would back Cameron if it were put up to a vote. However, the rules in place for the current government coalition in Berlin hold that Merkel must abstain in such a vote if the SPD doesn't back her position.

Immediately after the polling stations closed, the chancellor telephoned with SPD boss Sigmar Gabriel and ensured him that she wanted to continue with the grand coalition government and that a common solution could also be found in Brussels. Nevertheless, the first cracks are already showing. Speaking to a small number of people in Brussels, Gabriel said, "It cannot be that an anti-European like Cameron can dictate to Europeans what should be done." Another member of Merkel's cabinet says acidly of the chancellor, "She can push through anything in Europe, but not a candidate with whose face appeared on her campaign signs?" Thomas Oppermann, who heads the SPD in German parliament, also spoke out on the issue. "The Christian Democrats' distant relationship to their successful leading candidate is strange," he said, "because what Europe really needs is both: Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz."

Making an Ass of the People

But the chancellor has her own views of Europe's interests. In the course of the euro crisis since 2010, she lost her faith in the European Commission. She believes that, as the institution that is supposed to set the political pace, it has failed. Even as an administrative unit responsible for providing figures and forecasts, she doesn't think the Commission did a good enough job. It's her opinion that EU leaders and the European Central Bank ultimately had to take on responsibility that should have been that of the European Commission.

But now, the genie released by Martin Schulz, when he rose to become the leading candidate for Europe's Social Democrats, can no longer be put back in the bottle. Merkel wasn't pleased with the proceedings from the very start, but she played along and even campaigned for the election victory of Juncker, who is now fighting for the job. She constantly reiterated that it was "not a foregone conclusion" that the winner of the election would get the office, but by doing so, she also underestimated the dynamism that would build behind the race between the candidates in the run-up to the election and how it continues to develop today.

Schulz, the defeated candidate, set the tone for the coming days and weeks and also showed that he could stand up to Merkel. On his way back to his home in Würselen, Germany, last Tuesday, he learned that Merkel and Cameron had refused for the time being to give their support to Juncker, his new ally. "That is a dramatic case of electoral fraud," he shouted into his mobile phone. "That's making an ass out of the people on a grand scale."

By Nikolaus Blome, Horand Knaup, Paul Middelhoff, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Pauly, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
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