Thursday, 29 May 2014

Presidential Race: Juncker's Battle for the Berlaymont

The EPP may have won a plurality of seats in the European Parliament, but Jean-Claude Juncker, its candidate for Commission President, hasn't got the job yet. His Social Democrat rival, Martin Schulz, was reluctant to concede (and has not actually completely given up yet), but the numbers in the Parliament mean that Juncker is far more likely to form a stable majority. That's not the end of the story - several Prime Ministers and national delegations oppose his candidacy, so now there could be a stand-off between the European Parliament and the European Council.

Supporters and Opponents

The PES has recognised Juncker's right to the first attempt at finding a parliamentary majority. The seat numbers have changed a little since my first thoughts on the results on Monday, but essentially a Grand Coalition between EPP and PES (around 405 seats) would provide the most stable coalition with a workable majority. However, some national delegations of the EPP, such as Orban's Fidesz, are against Juncker's candidacy, and since the vote on a Presidential nominee is by secret ballot, it's not clear how cohesive a coalition would be in practice. It may be that the Liberals and Greens need to be added to the coalition to ensure there's a majority that can endure a prolonged struggle with the European Council.

David Cameron quickly came out against Juncker. Though Juncker is a centre-right candidate, Cameron calculates that he is too federalist to have in the Commission during his planned renegotiation. It's not clear who Cameron would find acceptable in the job. Two of the other possibilities that are subject to speculation are Christine Lagarde and Pascal Lamy, though I can't see them being arch-supporters of a repatriation programme. Juncker's supposed federalism may be overstated a bit: he's definitely for the status quo insofar as he backs the current treaties and had a hand in how the Eurozone has been reformed so far, but I think he's more of an intergovernmental pro-European - he's very close to the European Council, having sat in it for many years.

Without an alternative, it's questionable whether Cameron's opposition will actually pay off meaningfully for him. On Newsnight it was said that the UK's ability to block Juncker would be a test of Cameron's influence and ability to renegotiate, but at the moment the reward side of this risk is vague at best. (Remember, the European Council makes it nomination by Qualified Majority). Angela Merkel appears to have cooled on Juncker's candidacy (not that she was ever a fan of giving the Parliament the decision over the job - despite the CDU's manifesto pledge that the Commission President become a directly elected post). To act against your party's successful candidate is an odd political decision, especially given the head-to-head debates between Schulz and Juncker on German TV.

Juncker should get the job

The European Parliament has to stand behind Juncker if it wants the elections to be as important as they claimed during the campaign. Agreeing a compromise candidate with the European Council would discredit the Parliament and make the next elections more difficult. After all, the EPP won the most seats, not the Euroskeptics, and for the winning party's candidate to be dumped by the Council now would send a signal for next time to the voters: there's no point paying any attention to the candidates - or even the election - we'll just strike a deal afterwards.

Far from a Juncker Presidency playing into Euroskeptics' hands or ignoring the voters, it would underline the importance of the vote and respect the outcome and the resulting parliamentary arithmetic. Which is why the commentary on the Tagesschau today rightly pointed out that placating Cameron by ignoring the voters is a stupid political decision.

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