UCL European Institute


"A bad day for Europe"?

01 July 2014, 12:00 am

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Juncker's nomination was not a sudden, not an unexpected and not even a distinct event. Neither does it spell an end to the European Council's dominance in constitutional politics or make EU reform less likely.
Dr Christine Reh
2 July 2014

On 27 June, the EU's heads of government nominated Jean-Claude Juncker, Spitzenkandidat of the centre-right in the May elections to the European Parliament, as President of the European Commission. For the first time in the EU's history, the nomination was not consensual; the UK and Hungary were staunchly opposed to the candidate-and outvoted. "A bad day for Europe", in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron: in his view, the nomination equates with a sudden power grab by Europe's Parliament, while Juncker's "federalist" credentials now make EU reform less likely.

This reading of events can be challenged on two grounds. First, Juncker's nomination was not a sudden, not an unexpected and not even a distinct event. Instead, it was the result of the EU's gradual parliamentarisation; it was the upshot of a deliberate decision by all national governments (and by all ratifying national parliaments) to re-word the provision on nomination in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. It was also influenced by the changing nature of everyday decision-making in the EU. Second, neither the Spitzenkandidaten process nor the choice of Juncker spells an end to the European Council's dominance in constitutional politics or makes EU reform less likely.

No national politician or observer should have been surprised by the nomination process, or by the fact that 26 heads of government preferred outvoting two colleagues to running into a constitutional crisis with the EP. Given the need for parliamentary approval of the Commission President, given the EP's strong institutional commitment to the Spitzenkandidaten process, and given the loud public backing Juncker received from the two largest Europarties after the May elections, the EP would have certainly rejected any nominee other than Juncker.

Historically, the EP has been gradually empowered with regard to the EU's top-executive appointment. In 1993, Parliament was given the right to be consulted on the nomination; in 1999, it gained the right to approve the candidate; and since 2009, Art. 17.7 TEU requires Europe's heads of government to take the EP election results "into account" when nominating. Politically, the new process also has a forerunner: in the 2009 European election campaign, the centre-right EPP-ED group (still including at the time the British Conservatives) publicly endorsed then Commission President Barroso as their Spitzenkandidat in all but name. Finally, Art. 17.7 TEU must be read together with two related novelties: Declaration 11, making the European Council and the European Parliament "jointly responsible for the smooth running of the process leading to the election of the President of the European Commission", and Art. 10.1 TEU, stating that the "functioning of the Union is founded on representative democracy". In combination, these provisions invite expansive interpretation by the Parliament-and whoever expected anything less than the Spitzenkandidaten process as a result has not paid attention to the last two decades of EU Treaty reform and parliamentary empowerment.

The actual use of qualified majority voting may surprise a little more: a legal possibility since the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty, QMV had never been used when nominating the Commission President. As argued above, Europe's governments certainly wanted to avoid a constitutional crisis with Europe's Parliament. Yet, additional explanations for the majority vote may be found in the EU's legislative politics as a whole, with its trends towards a) more majoritarianism and b) closer inter-institutional cooperation.

As to the former, even if the EP is more consensual and inclusive than most national legislatures, its empowerment has made EU decision-making more majoritarian. In addition, as Daniel Naurin, Fiona Hayes-Renshaw and Helen Wallace show in their forthcoming The Council of Ministers, the percentage of consensual decisions in the Council has in fact decreased sharply since 2009. With regard to b), the intergovernmental Council cooperates closely with the EP in legislative decision-making; this is particular true for the informal negotiations leading to first reading or "early" agreements, which accounted for more than 70% of co-decided legislation in the Seventh EP. To reach such early agreements, the two institutions must work together very closely, and this process impacts on the two biggest Europarties in particular: the centre-right EPP and the centre-left PSE. They will always be represented in both Parliament and Council; they are prominent players in the informal arena; and they are, therefore, accustomed to operate effectively across the two institutions. This implies, in turn, that a government which does not belong to one of the two big Europarties (such as David Cameron's whose Tories left the EPP in 2009 to found their own political group) will be less able to influence cross-institutional politics. Hence, the use of QMV in the nomination of the incoming Commission President may, at least partly, be a spillover from the EU's everyday politics.

Furthermore, however, neither Juncker's nomination nor the Spitzenkandidaten process itself will disempower Europe's heads of government, or make EU reform-wanted and needed by the British Prime Minister-in any way less likely.

To be sure, the EP has now gained the parity in top-executive appointment which it already enjoys in legislative and budgetary politics. Yet, as argued above, this power came to the Parliament through a new Treaty, agreed unanimously by national governments. The European Council thus remains the "master" of the process at the heart of David Cameron's agenda: EU reform. And unless Cameron continues to pursue this agenda without clearly specified goals, without closely cooperating with his European partners, and without taking his hand off the doorknob, Juncker's nomination makes reform more rather than less likely. Indeed, Juncker has emerged challenged from the nomination process. He is not an all-powerful federalist leader of an all-powerful EU institution; instead, the Commission has been weakened through decades of Treaty reform and the changing nature of everyday decision-making. By contrast,  the President of the European Council, an engineer of compromise between Europe's leaders, has become as a very important political actor, and given Cameron's defeat over Juncker, he is unlikely to be outvoted again on this upcoming nomination. Finally, many national governments are sympathetic to Cameron's reform agenda, as the most recent European Council Conclusions (EUCO 79/14, 26/27 June 2014) powerfully demonstrate.

All that said, by giving Europarties a much more prominent role in the election campaign, and by making "grand coalitions" the likely default choice in the Eighth EP, both the Spitzenkandidaten process and the May elections have clearly empowered the centre-right EPP and the centre-left PES as the biggest Europarties. This has repercussions for the relationship between the national and supranational political arenas, and for the strategies heads of governments need to use to maximise their influence in Brussels. If the EU is, indeed, moving towards a system of "consensual majoritarianism", where alliances across the EU's institutions as well as across the EU's domestic parties become ever more important, heads of governments-and leaders of the opposition-must play a more prominent role in European politics as leaders of both: national parties and national governments. As the leader of a party, which is no longer part of the EU's powerful centre-right group, this may constitute the real challenge for David Cameron.

Dr Christine Reh, Senior Lecturer in European Politics, UCL School of Public Policy