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.


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.

Elections went forward and, despite the widely publicized successes of far-right and anti-EU parties, it was the center right European People’s Party (EPP) that won the most seats. Juncker, the EPP’s candidate, then, was set to become president after representatives approved him at last Friday’s European Council summit. (For Cameron, the selection of Juncker was particularly irksome: Cameron has criticized him as an EU insider and federalist.)

In the run up to the summit, Cameron reckoned that he would be able to secure sufficient backing among national leaders to block Juncker and that, by doing so, he could win favor with British euroskeptics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- whose own Christian Democratic Party is a member of the EPP -- initially appeared ambivalent toward Juncker, not least because she wanted national governments in the council to retain control over the nomination of the president. Leaders of Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden also expressed reservations about the Spitzenkandidat process and about Juncker’s suitability. And so Cameron launched a campaign against the Luxembourger and the principle that the parliament should pick the president. He even went so far as to warn fellow leaders that appointing Juncker would increase the likelihood of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Cameron’s campaign didn’t work. First, when Merkel wavered on supporting Juncker, the German press attacked her for failing to respect the outcome of the European Parliament election and for undermining the body’s effort to strengthen EU democracy. Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partners joined in. And so Merkel changed tack and came out in support of Juncker. Other heads of state, many put off by Cameron’s uncompromising approach, gradually lined up with the German leader. Although it was clear that Cameron now lacked the support he needed to block Juncker, he felt that he couldn't back down. And so he demanded an unprecedented vote in the European Council on Juncker’s nomination. Ultimately, he was defeated 26 to two, backed only by Hungary’s controversial -- and increasingly euroskeptic -- leader Viktor Órban.


Whether one views it as an illegitimate power grab or a bold step forward for pan-European democracy, the European Parliament’s gambit clearly succeeded. The fact that the winning Spitzenkandidat will become the president of the European Commission means that, in five years, when the next European elections are held, the process is likely to be repeated.

This year, the campaigns for the presidency were rather third-rate affairs. They featured candidates that few voters knew and televised debates that fewer watched. The lack of attention seemed to undermine promises that the election would increase public engagement and enhance EU democracy, as did low voter turnout and victories for extremist and anti-EU parties. Nevertheless, there is reason to expect that, next time around, the process will attract stronger candidates, more media attention, and far greater public awareness.

For one, national leaders and national political parties will surely tune in. This time around, many of them seemed to be caught on their back feet by the European Parliament’s effort to seize control of the nomination of the president. They had little excuse. The parliament had been indicating its intention to make this move since 2009, and it was clear a year ahead of the election that major party groups would nominate candidates. Given the attention this round got in the final stages, national governments and party leaders are likely to try to play a much more active role in the selection of presidential candidates next time around. This sort of engagement between national politics and EU-level politics will surely strengthen European democracy.


Back in the United Kingdom, Cameron’s Europe strategy is in a shambles. With an eye on May 2015 national elections, Cameron is trying to stem the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and hold together his own Conservative Party, which is more divided than ever on the question of EU membership. Cameron has attempted to put off the “Europe question,” as it is called, by promising that, if his party prevails in the May 2015 elections, he will renegotiate his country’s relationship with the EU and organize an “in/out” referendum in 2017. The referendum would allow British voters to decide whether the United Kingdom will remain a member of the EU.

When Cameron’s failed effort to block Juncker from becoming president backfired, it only highlighted British isolation within the EU and likely strengthened the position of euroskeptics. Nevertheless, a Brexit -- Cameron’s nuclear option during the presidential selection process -- remains highly unlikely.

Despite UKIP’s dramatic rise in last month’s European Parliament elections, surveys by YouGov indicate that, in fact, public support for the United Kingdom remaining a member of the EU has increased in recent years and has just reached the highest level recorded under the Cameron government. Recent studies have highlighted the likely economic costs of a Brexit, and British business interests overwhelmingly support EU membership. If the Labour Party wins the 2015 British election, there will be no in/out referendum, and even if the Conservatives win, it remains likely the party leaders would campaign for “in” and that voters would support them.

Although EU leaders sometimes find the United Kingdom a troublesome partner, they recognize that a Brexit would be a major blow to the EU’s prestige and authority, and they will work strenously to avoid it. Although they will certainly not allow the country to veto or opt out of all the policies it opposes, they will be eager to take up some of Cameron’s reform initiatives and offer him some (perhaps token) concessions, so that he can make the case at home that he has “renegotiated” his country’s relationship with Europe. As a sop to Cameron, EU leaders declared Friday that they would seek to address British concerns about the future development of the EU and would reconsider the process of appointment of the president. Although they may increase national governments’ involvement in the nomination next time, they are unlikely to sever the link between the pan-European election and the commission presidency that the parliament has just established.

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  • R. DANIEL KELEMEN is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and Visiting Fellow in the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of Lessons from Europe? What Americans Can Learn from European Public Policies.
  • More By R. Daniel Kelemen