Cameron vs Juncker – how to win with your hands tied?

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June 13, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

The Prime Minister has published an article this morning explaining the effort he has been making to block the accession to the EU Presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker. What he says makes sense, but the truth is that a promise he made almost 10 years ago means his ability to influence this process has more limits than most people realise.

Cameron begins his article by pointing out that voters sent a clear message at the EU elections that they are disillusioned and want change. Amidst falling turnout, anti-EU parties have risen, even winning in some countries, the UK included. What happens now is important – because Cameron believes that if Juncker is confirmed as EU President, it will prove to the voters that the EU leadership hasn’t heeded the concerns that have been expressed.

Cameron explains that under the EU Treaties, what should have happened is that EU Heads of Government are supposed to propose the candidate for the EU Presidency, and the MEPs then vote on that candidate in a secret ballot. It was a tortuous negotiation that led to this process being agreed, said Cameron, but it means that people who were actually elected by their populations are involved in selecting the EU President, whilst also “taking account” of the EU election results.

MEPs though invented a new process. There are political groups in the EU Parliament (parties in each country belong to a political group – so Labour belongs to the “European Socialists” and the Conservatives….well, I’ll get to that later), and each group ran a “lead candidate” – called a ‘Spitzkandidaten’. Whichever political group won the most European Parliament seat would have their Spitzkandidaten supported by the others. This concept wasn’t agreed by the European Council, negotiated between the European institutions nor ratified by national parliaments. But the ‘winning’ candidate is Jean-Claude Juncker of the “European People’s Party” (EPP) and so the supporters of the Spitzkandidaten argue that the people of Europe have chosen Juncker, and for elected national leaders to choose anyone else would be undemocratic.

Cameron argues that this is deeply damaging for Europe and would undermine the EU’s democratic legitimacy. It would shift power from national governments to the European Parliament without voters’ approval. He points out that most European voters didn’t vote in the European Parliament elections (a weak argument – that is their choice and their responsibility). He points out that Juncker’s name did not appear on a ballot paper anywhere (a much stronger argument). He says that in Germany, where the concept of ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ had the most airtime, only 15% of voters actually knew Junckner was a candidate. Juncker didn’t visit some of the member states. But, most importantly, those who voted did so to choose their MEP, not the Commission President. Cameron concludes by saying that Juncker ‘did not stand anywhere and was not elected by anyone’.

Cameron wants the EU leaders to focus on finding the best candidate for Commission President – someone in his words ‘who can deliver reform, driving growth and creating jobs; and accepting that Europe’s needs may be best served by action at the national level’.

Speculation is that this candidate would be the current Danish Prime Minister – Helle Thorning-Shmidt (she of the infamous selfie with Obama and Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last year), the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite – or, if the requirement is to have someone who doesn’t have a “day-job” – they might wait to see if Frederick Reinfeldt the Swedish PM loses his re-election later this year.

But the problem for Cameron is that he simply can’t influence this process as much as he would like to, and that’s because he pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party just after becoming the leader of the Conservatives in 2005, having promised he would do so during his Leadership campaign. The reason he did it was complicated – he said it was because the EPP contained too many federalist parties (like German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats), but most commentators at the time saw it as a way of proving the Euro-sceptics in his party that he was ‘one of them’ when he was up against David Davis – a true Euro-sceptic. Having made the promise, he had to go through with it.

So now he is left patching together a ramshackle political alliance called the European Conservatives and Reformists group – with conservative parties from Denmark and Poland as well as, controversially, Merkel’s most Eurosceptic opponents, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). This has not gone down well with Merkel, and for Cameron to have any real influence in this European President issue – he needs Merkel’s support. If he doesn’t he may well see his considerable efforts flounder.

If he does so, we may well get Juncker, a man who believes passionately in a United States of Europe, and who once said after France had voted no in a referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 that it would ‘make no difference’. You might as well parcel Junckner up in wrapping paper, put a ribbon round him and hand him to Nigel Farage, because he will truly believe it’s Christmas.

Which is why Cameron is making the effort he is.

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