Viewpoint: The European Commission Presidency – This Time it’s Different

Viewpoint: The European Commission Presidency – This Time it’s Different

Image: European Parliament

William Outhwaite, University of Newcastle

Last September, under this rather curious image, the European Parliament launched an information campaign labelled, with the usual banality (and without exclamation marks): Act. React. Impact. (It sounds even worse if you say it out loud.)

‘…after the next elections it is your parliament who will elect the head of Europe’s executive, based on your wishes, as expressed in these elections. This time it’s different. Together we now have more power to make a difference. The European Parliament and you. Together we can act, react and have an impact’.

The first sentence was a slight exaggeration. The formal position (TEU Article 17.7) is that,

‘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 candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he [sic] does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure’.

The heads of state or government seem to have believed that, as in the past, the Council would look at how the left-right balance had turned out in the new Parliament and include that as one element among others in its deliberations. (Note the phrase ‘taking into account the elections’ rather than ‘…the results of the elections’.)

This time, however, it actually was different. The party groups in the Parliament proposed their lead candidates, and there was a series of broadcast debates between them – the first between Juncker and Schulz at the beginning of April, followed by debates at the end of April and in the first weeks of May, inspired by Michael Shackleton, in Maastricht (Shackleton’s university), at the EUI in Florence and in the Parliament building in Brussels, including candidates from most of the main party groups.

So what? The elephant in the room was the requirement that the Commission president be approved by parliamentary majority, with the implication that the Parliament would probably only support the candidate whose party had come out on top. As it turned out, the European People’s Party has the largest number of MEPs and Schulz and the social democrats have endorsed Juncker.

End of story? No, because several heads of state or government, including for a time Angela Merkel, expressed reservations about Juncker and machinations against his candidature are still continuing, with Cameron the most outspoken. The Swedish prime minister (and a possible candidate if the process drags on further) has criticised the principle that the Commission president should emerge from the Parliament.

A Guardian letter signed by Habermas, Giddens and others made the counter-argument that, like it or not, he was and remains the leading candidate, with no legitimate alternative. Rebecca Harms, chair of the Green group in the European Parliament, commented that “David Cameron’s arrogance towards Jean-Claude Juncker…is intolerable.”

Opinion in Germany is particularly strong in supporting the principle of following the rules and seems to have swayed Merkel. Elsewhere in Europe there was probably less awareness of this dimension of the election: In Britain, Labour dissociated itself from Schulz and there was no Conservative to vote for, since the party had left the European People’s Party and joined the cranky European Conservatives and Reformists, who declined to participate.

The clock is ticking: before the end of June the Council has to propose its candidate, who presents him- or herself for the Parliament’s endorsement in the middle of July. The rest of the summer and early autumn is spent in negotiations about the member states’ nominations for the other commissioners.

Does this matter for the European polity and European society? Presidents of the Commission come and go; some make a major difference, like Jacques Delors (1985-1994), others, like Barroso, don’t. This time, however, the choice has been politicised irreversibly. President Juncker, if that’s the way it turns out, will know that he was not Merkel’s preferred candidate and was actively opposed by a number of other heads of state. Any alternative (Pascal Lamy,formerly Delors’ chef de cabinet, EU Trade Commissioner and head of the World Trade Organisation) being for my money the most attractive) would lack legitimacy and quite possibly be vetoed by the Parliament. A dispute which could last until September would only increase what we euphemistically call euroscepticism; the UK, whose government has been even more obstructive than usual, might end up outside the EU, probably to the benefit of the latter, if disastrous for the former.

On the positive side, we have seen, for the first time in European Union politics, something like a public political contest of the kind familiar from national politics. Juncker travelled in a blue battle-bus with his name on the front; Schulz chartered a plane to get from Berlin to Maastricht for the first big debate. (The Green speaker, Ska Keller, arrived on a bicycle.) The debates seemed to me no more, but also no less, impressive than those in the UK, US and elsewhere.

The Parliament, whether or not it wins this battle, can only be strengthened by it. At the most optimistic, if you are a slightly starry-eyed European federalist, we might have found the way to implement the suggestion made by Joschka Fischer in 2000 that the member-state representatives in the Council should eventually be transformed into a second chamber of the Parliament, a European Senate or Bundesrat.

When I teased my former colleague, the late Christopher Prout, about the weakness of the Parliament, to which he was elected in 1979 and where he came to lead the British Conservatives, he rightly reminded me that Parliaments tend to start weak and get stronger. The European Parliament started, arguably, on the wrong foot, modelled on the parliamentary assembly which accompanied the Coal and Steel Community established in 1951. (Outhwaite 2014) Since the introduction of direct election in 1979 it has become more significant, despite being marginalised, like the other EU institutions, in the frenzied intergovernmental response to the financial crisis. (Habermas 2011; Hix and Høyland 2013)

The European Union has always moved forward in fits and starts, with last-minute deals snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. What is genuinely different this time is that something concrete has at last been done to tackle the ‘democratic deficit’ and to make the EU a little less of an elite project. (See, for example, Haller 2008; Kauppi 2005) The downside of Juncker’s victory is that he is very much part of that old Europe, and might not dynamise the new Commission. However, he was elected, and that’s that. As it happens, I voted for Schulz (rather than the pathetically timid British Labour Party, which dissociated itself from him and effectively from the European election as whole), but you can’t always get what you want, especially in an electorate of nearly 400 million.

‘Risking more democracy’, to borrow Willy Brandt’s slogan, is just that: risky. Most Europeans, we should remember, ‘trust’ (whatever that means) the EU more than their own governments, but this does not mean that they want ‘more Europe’. There is a genuine danger that more democracy at the European level will further undermine that in the member states; the balance between the two is inevitably a delicate one. Member state governments, with the British out in front, resist being bound by collective decisions, without seeming to grasp the simple point that a concession to one would imply the same treatment for the other 27. Blaming Brussels is a cheap get-out, but one which ultimately undermines the legitimacy of the Union (which does actually ‘make us strong’).


References :

Habermas, Jürgen (2011) Zur Verfassung Europas. Frankfurt : Suhrkamp. Tr. as The Crisis of the European Union. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.

Haller, Max (2008) European Integration as an Elite Process: the failure of a dream? London: Routledge.

Hix, Simon and Bjørn Høyland (2013) ‘Empowerment of the European Parliament’, Annual Review of Political Science 16: 171-189.

Kauppi, Niilo (2005) Democracy, Social Resources and Political Power in the European Union. Manchester University Press.

Outhwaite, William (2014) ‘The Future of European Democracy’, European Journal of Social Theory. August.


William Outhwaite is Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University. He is the author of European Society, 2008; Critical Theory and Contemporary Europe (New York: Continuum) and (with Larry Ray) Social Theory and Postcommunism, Blackwell, 2005. His articles in this area include ‘European Civil Society and the European Intellectual’, in C.Fleck, A.Hess and E.S.Lyon (eds), Intellectuals and their Publics, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 59-67, ‘Legality and Legitimacy in the European Union’, in Samantha Ashenden and Chris Thornhill (eds), Legality and Legitimacy: Normative and Sociological Approaches, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2010, pp. 279-290, ‘The Future of European Democracy’, European Journal of Social Theory, November 2014 and (with David Spence) ‘Luc Boltanski in Euroland’, in Simon Susen and Bryan Turner (eds), The Spirit of Luc Boltanski (London: Anthem, in press). He has a book in progress on Europe since 1989. My thanks to Michael Shackleton and David Spence for invaluable information and advice concerning this article.