President for the People

Can Jean-Claude Juncker Save the Union and Prevent a Brexit?

Jean-Claude Juncker in Berlin, May 8, 2014.
Jean-Claude Juncker in Berlin, May 8, 2014. (Thomas Peter / Courtesy Reuters)

At a meeting last Friday in Brussels, EU leaders voted to nominate Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, as the next president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. Juncker’s nomination constituted a major victory for the European Parliament and a humiliating defeat for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, over the last month, had fought to block Juncker’s nomination in an effort to appease British euroskeptics.

In the aftermath of defeat, Cameron styled himself as the plucky loser who, in the finest British tradition, stood on principle to defend national interests against insurmountable odds. The European media, though, ridiculed him. Germany’s Bild, a tabloid newspaper, dubbed Cameron “the Wayne Rooney of EU politics,” referring to the British soccer star who led his team to defeat in the World Cup. Meanwhile, the high-brow Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung compared him to Don Quixote.

CAMERON’S GAME

It might seem odd that the routine selection of Brussels’ new bureaucrat-in-chief would attract so much media attention. But the process was different this time around, and there was much more at stake than just routine bureaucratic politics.

In the run up to last month’s European Parliament elections, the party groups within the parliament had launched a new process for selecting the president, which they claimed would enhance democracy in the EU. Instead of allowing national governments in the European Council to select a candidate for the presidency behind closed doors, as in the past, this time, the voters would decide. Each major party group named a candidate -- a so-called Spitzenkandidat (top candidate) -- for the presidency in advance of the election. All the party groups agreed that the candidate whose party secured the most seats during the parliamentary elections would become president.

Sounds simple enough. But for the Cameron government, the process was unacceptable. For Cameron and euroskeptics in his Conservative Party, basing the selection of the president on the outcome of the parliamentary election was a step too far toward a European federal government -- and an illegitimate power grab by the parliament.

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