Democracy in Europe

A real struggle over who will preside over the European Commission has begun. Though the center-right European People’s Party won only a narrow plurality of 221 seats in the 751-seat European Parliament, center-left, green, and liberal MEPs have all rallied behind the EPP’s candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, as the “legitimate” choice. The opposition, led by British Prime Minister David Cameron with the support of “sovereignists” across Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, but also in Hungary, contends that someone whom the majority of European citizens hardly know, cannot claim any kind of political legitimacy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now in a bind. Though she endorsed Juncker before the election, she never really backed the notion that the European Parliament should have a decisive part in selecting the Commission’s president. She was certain that no party would win an absolute majority, but she did not foresee that almost all representatives from moderate parties would back whichever candidate won a plurality, making it difficult to appoint anyone else.

The larger issue at stake is whether Europe is prepared to establish the common political space that is needed to manage the monetary union and strengthen the European Union’s influence in world affairs.

Most economists agree that in the absence of advanced fiscal-policy coordination and a real banking union, Europe’s monetary union cannot succeed. This does not bother the United Kingdom, which has no desire to join the eurozone. Among eurozone members, however, the need for greater political integration is broadly accepted, and not just by the economic and political elites.

Moreover, as Russia’s recent assertions of power in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union demonstrate, European countries need to deepen their security cooperation and develop a common energy policy. And, though cooperation in areas such as data privacy, financial-sector regulation, and climate change may not require the degree of political integration that a common currency does, it would benefit greatly from stronger political cohesion and a more profound sense of shared European identity.

The pan-European parties’ nomination of Spitzenkandidaten for the Commission presidency – and the three direct debates among the nominees – marked the start of building a genuine supranational European political space. Indeed, the endorsement of Juncker by the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Liberals reflects their belief in the need for such a space. The candidates, particularly Martin Schulz, the leader of the Party of European Socialists, campaigned beyond their national borders.

But Europe still has a long way to go, which is apparent from the fact that only a minority of European citizens followed the campaign. A supra-national political space can develop only if European politics gains visibility, influence, and credibility. For this reason, Europe’s leaders should reach a compromise on the next Commission president quickly and transparently, thereby dispelling the impression among ordinary citizens that European politics is shaped by a dysfunctional process of behind-the-scenes horse-trading.

As usual, Merkel has a critical role to play. Her endorsement of a candidate whom she knew Cameron would vehemently oppose was a serious mistake, because it strengthened the hand of those in the UK who want to leave the EU.

Merkel must now determine how to forge a compromise that does not discredit the Europe-wide democratic process, which currently has more support in Germany than in any other large European country. To this end, support from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – whose party won 41% of his country’s vote, arguably making him the only real winner at the national level – could help.

The stakes are high – and not just for Europe. The world needs a thriving, cohesive EU to advance democratic principles, facilitate conflict resolution, protect the global commons, promote peace, and build trust across borders. The alternative – already gaining traction – is the resurgence of naked power politics and dangerous xenophobia. Without a shared European political space, everyone will be much worse off.