The Five-Year Itch: The Implications of the EU Appointments Process

As the crises in Europe’s neighborhood mount, the European Union (EU) is once more consumed by an important but fundamentally internal issue. The current struggle involves the EU’s effort to select a trio of leaders for its main institutions: specifically the president of the European Commission, the president of the European Council and the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy (a sort of foreign minister). The selection of Luxembourg’s former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission proved extremely divisive. Worse, EU member states failed to select people for the other two posts, punting the decision until after Europe’s long August break.

These perennial brawls over the selection of EU leaders reflect a broader divide over what the purpose of the European project actually is. At stake is the balance between member states and EU institutions, as well as the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

To a degree, this divide tells a story which has been told over and over again since the European integration project started over 60 years ago. But today’s disagreements are playing out in a context shaped by the effects of a devastating economic crisis which shattered the public’s trust in the EU’s ability to deliver prosperity, and amid crises in Europe’s neighborhood that threaten its security. With EU member states also mired in a poisonous debate over the merits of austerity and a referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership looming, the EU may soon face existential challenges. This would have very serious consequences not only for all European countries, but also for the United States.

The Deeper Divide

The story begins with very distinct understandings of the meaning of last May’s European Parliament (EP) election results. All agree that anti-establishment forces cumulatively got around 30 percent of the votes, but there the agreement ends. According to Euro-skeptics, particularly British Prime Minister David Cameron, the strong electoral showing of non-mainstream parties, all openly critical of the EU, has conveyed a clear message that the European public is sick of an “ever closer” Union built over their heads by unaccountable elites. In this reading, the appointment of a quintessentially EU insider such as Juncker flies in the face of the public’s demand for “reform.”

Supporters of Juncker’s appointment took precisely the opposite lesson from the EP election. They point out that most EP parties had put forward their spitzenkandidat, or “lead candidate,” for the commission top post prior to the election in an attempt to bolster the Commission’s democratic legitimacy. Juncker was nominated by the group that won the most seats, the European People’s Party (EPP), the Europe-wide coalition of mainstream center-right parties. Hence, his appointment should be viewed as expressing the European public will. By adopting this line of reasoning, supporters of Juncker implicitly accept the Europhile argument that votes in the EP election convey public views on European, as opposed to national, issues – a proposition which runs counter to most understandings of European voter behavior.

In fact, the picture is more nuanced than either view admits. A large section of the European public, extending well beyond the electorate of anti-EU parties, undoubtedly perceives the EU as a distant, opaque and scarcely accountable decision-making machine. Yet, to infer from this general sense of disenchantment a demand for transferring powers back to national capitals, as Euro-skeptics do, is a stretch. Seventy percent of Europeans, however disillusioned they might be, voted for pro-EU parties. It is not unreasonable to assume that they crave greater transparency and accountability rather than more national sovereignty. But is the spitzenkandidat method really a step in that direction, given that only 8 percent of Europeans polled could even name Juncker?

The New Risks

According to its critics, the spitzenkandidat process expropriates the right to select the commission president from EU leaders, thereby illegitimately making the EP the kingmaker. This is a legitimate concern. By inventing the spitzenkandidaten, the EP parties have seized upon the wording of the Lisbon treaty to somewhat improperly increase the EP’s role. While the text does state that the result of the EP elections should be taken into account, it says nothing about EP parties indicating their candidates in advance, keeping the ultimate say on the matter in the hands of the council (even though the commission president needs a vote of confidence by the EP).

EU leaders are aware of this and have announced plans to review the way the Commission president is chosen. Still, there is no doubt that the EP has succeeded in creating a precedent that the council may find hard to ignore in the future. Having tasted real power, the EP is unlikely to give up on it without a fight.

There are good arguments to support the EP’s as well as the council’s prerogatives. The EU is designed to share prerogatives among these bodies in a search for balance between its conflicting intergovernmental and supranational personalities. Finding that balance may ultimately be impossible, but (as so often with the EU) the end result is less important than the process itself. While imperfect, a governance system based on constant intergovernmental and inter-institutional bargaining keeps the EU boat afloat and enables cooperation between member states on a scale otherwise unachievable. A dynamic according to which the EP defines EU interests in a “communitarian” manner while the council does it in intergovernmental terms should therefore be bounded and a sense of co-ownership fostered. Manichean assertions as to where the “democratic legitimacy” of the EU lies – be it in the member states or in empowered communitarian institutions such as the EP – should also be put to rest.

The risk is that open warfare between the EP and the council, as well as between integrationist and anti-integrationist camps, would catch the commission in the middle, reducing its ability to devise solutions acceptable to all EU countries. With the European economy reeling from the eurozone crisis, EU member states cannot afford to waste time or energy on institutional infighting, nor can they afford a subdued commission. On the contrary, the new commission’s ability to take the initiative and broker compromises among the member states will be critical, as its inauguration next fall will almost certainly coincide with a renewed “pro vs. anti-austerity” debate within the EU.

Indeed, getting past the austerity debate is the EU’s most urgent political task. We underline the term “political” because, whatever the (highly disputed) economic merits of the austerity course, it might soon become politically unsustainable. German-led austerity champions still hold the higher ground, while debtor countries have little leverage. Yet, whatever the Germans and their partners think they are gaining in the present circumstances might get easily lost. If anti-establishment parties continue to gain, the EU could, in a few years, become unworkable.

Implications for the U.S.

The U.S. clearly has a great deal at stake in the EU’s leadership decisions. Public comment would be both impolite and unwise, but U.S. officials are assumedly quietly making U.S. views known to their EU partners. They would likely express three core U.S. interests that might be affected by the EU leadership decisions:

  • EU economic decision-making – For both economic and geopolitical reasons, the U.S. effort to conclude a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU is a critical priority for the Obama administration. The U.S. will want negotiating partners in the commission who believe strongly in the TTIP process, but are sensitive enough to the member states’ positions that they can adequately represent them at the negotiations and thus persuade them to accept the outcome. The U.S. also supports a relaxation of austerity conditions within Europe, in part because it believes the resulting stronger growth will provide the necessary economic and political breathing space for national leaders to support TTIP.
  • EU Foreign Policy – As the U.S. attempts to shift its attention to emerging dynamics in East Asia and continual crises in the Middle East, it is (and has been for some time) looking for a Europe (EU or otherwise) that is willing to step up and take responsibility for its own region. The Ukraine crisis has not appreciably changed that desire but it has sharpened the necessity. At the same time, the clear leadership and public opinion struggles within the EU in recent years have largely led the U.S. to despair that the EU as an institution can take responsibility for its own region. The U.S. has by necessity fallen back on a more intergovernmental approach to European leadership whereby a coalition of interested states might serve as a vanguard for organizing European foreign policy on specific issues. The U.S. wants an EU and particularly a new high representative that can provide both institutional support and political cover for this process, particularly in regards to the Eastern neighborhood but also on issues like Iran and North Africa.
  • Britain future’s in the EU – The U.S. has made clear that it believes that it is important for the U.K., the EU and transatlantic relations that the U.K. remains within the EU. From an American perspective, the U.K. anchors in the EU in the transatlantic alliance, provides an important liberal economic perspective for a club that harbors some protectionist tendencies, and helps to maintain British standing in the world. There is a great deal of worry in the U.S. that, as a result of British tactics on EU questions (and arguably as a result of the German response), the British are being increasingly isolated in the EU, potentially setting the stage for a disastrous departure decision in 2017.

The Results (so Far)

The results of the EU appointments process (so far) are a long way from satisfying these desires. The outward manifestation of these divides have been the apparently endless effort to find balances in the job selections among the EU’s many competing interests – right and left; east and west; male and female; small country and large country. But beyond that almost impossible math problem, the process has reflected the increasingly polarized debate between the intergovernmental and supranational visions of the EU. The divide threatens not only to weaken EU decision-making, but also to contribute to further alienation of the European and especially the British public and thus to continue the steady trend of increasing vote shares for anti-systemic parties.

As a result of this particular appointment process, the new leadership begins with weak legitimacy and an inbox of very serious geopolitical and economic challenges. There are now much greater risks in this process, for both Europe and the U.S. The EU is under enormous strain from its continuing economic problems, from its inability to formulate strong, unified to problems in its neighborhood, and from the threatened defection of the U.K. The new EU leaders might wish therefore to begin simply by considering how next time this process can enhance rather than reduce the EU’s troubled image at home and abroad.