Junker for Commission President: What were the stakes in this affair

Jean-Claude Juncker, addressing the Plenary of the European Parliament - Statement by the candidate for President of the Commission. (European Parliament Photographic Library 15/07/2014).

Jean-Claude Juncker, addressing the Plenary of the European Parliament – Statement by the candidate for President of the Commission. (European Parliament Photographic Library 15/07/2014).

Jean-Claude Juncker’s was confirmed last Tuesday as President of the European Commission for the next five years. In a secret ballot 422 MEPs who voted for him and 250 against. This goes beyond what David Cameron had imagined, when he decided to fervently oppose this appointment for the top EU job. To be reminded, that Cameron suffered last month another humiliating defeat in the European Council, where 26 EU leaders voted for Juncker, with only the Hungarian Prime Minister Vitor Orban, an inconvenient company, having followed the British option. After the resounding win of the Luxembourgish politician in both the European Council and the European legislature, the British Prime minister must have understood that he has unwillingly triggered the first profoundly political truly pan-European debate around the occupant of the Commission’s helm.

This debate went far beyond the usual economic and bureaucratic character of European Union’s decisions, where even the most important rulings, like the position of Greece in or out of Eurozone, have been taken behind closed doors, after an unbelievable horse trading between the core countries. The election of Jean-Claude Juncker, as Commission President and the wide media coverage of all the deliberations around it, for the first time created a genuinely pan-European political debate, open for everybody to follow.

A truly European debate

Never before in the history of the European Union had a purely political dispute acquired such clarity and extent. All the main players expressed their positions openly and at the end, the European citizens, through their MEPs, said the last word. At the beginning, the whole thing started as a dispute between David Cameron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Until five years ago, the name of the politician to become the next Commission President was decided in the dark, away from citizens’ eyes. Britain has voluntarily participated in similarly shadowy negotiations and procedures. Actually this undemocratic practice is one, if not the main, objection that Cameron ostensibly now expresses, asking for a deep reshuffle of EU’s workings and the return of sovereignties to member states.

The British PM used similar arguments last year when promising to his compatriots to hold a referendum in 2017 over UK’s position in or out of the EU, if he is reelected as Prime Minister in 2015. He used the same arguments, and obviously exercised his influence in the British media to do the same, in denying Juncker’s candidacy accusing him of being a man of the ‘back room deals’. Unfortunately for him, Juncker belied this accusation by delivering this week a genuinely passionate speech in the European Parliament, promising to ‘reindustrialise’ Europe and help the 25 million of unemployed citizens to find a job.

Elected not selected

In short this election, not anymore a selection, of the next President of the Commission became a truly European issue. Opposing camps of continental dimensions fought an open political struggle not on national issues, but on the burning question of more or less Europe. Explicitly, Cameron supported the latter option and Juncker, backed by 26 heads of states and governments and 422 MEPs, won the clash for the ‘more Europe’ camp. The British MP was then roasted by his compatriots for starting a quarrel he couldn’t win and finally having caused a historic defeat to Britain.

As for Juncker, he showed the magnanimity the conscious winners owe to the defeated. After he was finally confirmed in the European Parliament, he said “I will negotiate with (Prime Minister) David Cameron and with others and we will make a fair deal with Britain”. The new Commission President apparently followed Thucydides advice to winners, not to be insensitive to the woes of the defeated, because such an attitude may provoke revenge and chaos.

Investing €300 billion for more jobs

It’s even more important for Europe to note that Juncker, addressing the legislative after his confirmation, unveiled his plans for a “social market economy, including a €300 billion investment package to boost growth, employment and competitiveness”. He also stressed that he will work to make the EU Commission/ECB/IMF Troika more democratic and enhance the margins of flexibility in the Stability and Growth Pact, as the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and other EU leaders demand.

Summing up what happened during the past three months around the ‘Juncker affair’, it won’t be an exaggeration to call it the first internal European Union clash, which was disputed with purely pan-continental arguments without hidden national targets. Actually, this conflict for the first time formally framed the two ideological camps of the pro and against ‘more Europe’, with the former winning a tremendous victory. The camp ‘against’ more Europe contains uneasy and opportunistic associates, most of who are products of the economic crisis and hopefully will disappear with it. The anti-Juncker camp comprising the British Conservatives, the UKIP of Nigel Farage, Victor Orban’s Fidesz party, Mari Le Pen’s National Front and other extremist MEPs doesn’t constitute a group. They all have widely diverging private agendas.

A genuine European debate

Overall though, the ‘Juncker affair’ was fought as an internal EU issue in a seamless political platform. The confrontation was open for the citizens to follow, unlike almost all the crucial European problems which have been dealt in the past behind closed doors. The arguments and the ideologies employed were of shared European political content. Despite the fact that some of them are openly hostile to the EU, their exponents came up to find out that they represent a pan-European tendency albeit of restricted following.

In any case the solution achieved warrants a higher level of democracy in dealing with such ‘systemic’ EU questions in the future.

 

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