Jean-Claude Juncker: A Victory for Democracy?

The nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker by the Council of Europe to become the next President of the European Commission has received an unusual amount of coverage in the UK for a matter concerning European politics.  David Cameron’s opposition to Juncker because of his commitment to greater European integration fits the narrative of the UK being dragged into a political union it has no desire to be in, while also allowing Cameron to show the electorate that he is capable of being ‘tough’ on Europe.  This is how an overwhelming defeat of 26 votes to 2 on Juncker’s nomination has been seen as a victory for Cameron.  However the vote’s implications have far greater implications than simply for domestic politics; it was also a victory for democracy within the EU.

A near-universal criticism of the EU is that it lacks democratic legitimacy and accountability.  This is in part what the European Parliament was aimed to solve; a directly elected chamber which has a say on EU legislation can provide accountability to the indirectly elected European Commission – though the Parliament still lacks powers possessed by most of its national equivalents.  The 2009 Lisbon Treaty sought to further the powers of the European Parliament as a way of boosting confidence in European institutions.  Whether it has been successful is up for debate, but one important tenet of the treaty was that, in nominating Presidents of the European Commission, European leaders must ‘take account’ of the results of the most recent European Parliament election.

Like many aspects of the EU, the way in which account should be taken of these results hasn’t been clearly defined.  The consensus has been that the grouping which wins the most seats in the Parliament would have its candidate become President.  This is the interpretation that has been sold to the European public, largely through a series of debates featuring each European grouping’s candidate to become the next President.  The European People’s Party ultimately won the most seats and thus, by this interpretation, Juncker as their candidate should become President.  It’s true that most voters didn’t cast their vote with these candidates in mind but, nevertheless, to renege on this assumption would render the debates a farce and be an affront to the EU’s only democratically-elected institution.  Cameron’s much looser interpretation is that the results show a desire for reform away from closer integration and that the President’s selection should reflect this.  This may be true in the UK – although UKIP’s success is more an indictment on the current state of British politics than of the EU – but he cannot project this message across the rest of Europe when pro-European parties won 70% of the seats in the European Parliament.

That EU procedure can provoke such drastically different interpretations is due to its half-hearted approach to democratic legitimacy.  Power still resides with the unelected commissioners of the European Commission.  If we wish to remain in the EU and for it to be more accountable, there are two main options: either have a directly elected President or allow Parliament to nominate the President.  The former is unlikely to be suitable for most eurosceptics but the latter may be feasible.  And this, essentially, is the precedent created by Juncker’s nomination.  Both his own European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats group have backed him, thereby giving him the support of a majority of MEPs.  A general consensus appears to have developed that this is the appropriate way for the position to be selected, which may become enshrined in law within the next five years.

To be clear, Juncker is far from the perfect candidate.  His preference for closed-doors diplomacy will do little to increase the EU’s transparency while his support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) won’t benefit democracy either on a national or a continental level.  Yet for the first time the President’s nomination has a degree of democratic legitimacy and indicates that, though there is still much to be done, the EU is continuing down a path which gives its citizens the final say on how it’s run.

Image credit: by Jean-Claude_Juncker_(2006).jpg: Martin Möller derivative work: IgnisFatuus (Jean-Claude_Juncker_(2006).jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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