The EU’s unique definition of democracy

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 5 June 2014

What is democracy? Well, usually democracy is when the people vote in an election and the winner then happens to form a government. It is as simple as that. And what is European Union democracy? It is when the people vote in an election and, regardless of the outcome, German chancellor Angela Merkel decides on the next president of the European Commission.

In short, that is the absurd situation the EU finds itself in after the European elections. The current haggling over the next President of the Commission, the EU’s equivalent of a government, is quite a bizarre spectacle. If you are not a seasoned observer of European affairs, it may appear rather odd. Yet watching this drama also reveals a lot about the state of European politics.

Let me take you through the current act in the EU’s theatre of the absurd.

This year’s European elections were different from all previous Europe-wide elections. The big novelty was that the larger blocs of parties entered the elections with leading candidates — people who were presented to voters as potential presidents of the European Commission, the EU’s executive. Previously, presidents were chosen by European heads of government, typically behind closed doors.

The change was brought about to reflect changes in the EU’s law. The Lisbon Treaty mandates that the new president of the EU Commission has to be elected by the European Parliament on the recommendation of the European Council, reflecting the result of the European elections. The precise meaning of this arrangement had never been entirely clear and it is certainly not straightforward.

However, there was a view that this had strengthened the EU Parliament in such a way that the next president needed Parliament’s backing. As a result, the European elections were also fought as elections between the two most likely candidates to lead the next Commission: Social Democrat Martin Schulz or Christian Democrat Jean-Claude Juncker.

After the European elections, this question should have been answered quite quickly in favour of Juncker. After all, he beat his rival Schulz by 11 per cent of the vote (or 26 parliamentary seats).

So, Juncker for president? Not so fast.

At least Martin Schulz did not take long to concede having lost the election — good on him. What is taking way longer is an acknowledgement by Juncker’s own party that he has actually won.

It’s complicated.

Several factors make Juncker’s electoral victory difficult to deal with for his supposed political friends. The first problem has nothing directly to do with Juncker’s personality but a lot with the circumstances of his election.

Straight after the election, the two competitors Schulz and Juncker got together to form an unusual alliance. Schulz did not only concede his loss but also promised Juncker his support to make him the next president of the Commission. In return, Schulz expects to become his deputy. With this position in mind, the two then managed to get factional leaders in the European Parliament to issue a statement in which they announced consultations on the next president.

It was an open declaration of war on Europe’s heads of government, led by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Not only would Parliament thwart their backroom deals, but Schulz and Juncker are trying to dictate to Merkel whom she has to send to Brussels as Germany’s next member of the Commission. Not Merkel’s fellow party member Günther Oettinger, who currently holds this post, but Merkel’s political rival Martin Schulz!

Merkel was not amused by such chutzpah, and she has not hidden it. For days, she did not manage to say anything remotely positive about Jean-Claude Juncker, who was supposed to be her own candidate. Not that Merkel ever liked the idea of having leading candidates in the first place.

For someone like Merkel, who loves doing deals in private, the idea of a democratic election does not come naturally. Apart from that, she has had her clashes with Juncker in the euro crisis when he torpedoed some of her policies. Merkel did not forget that. That she still supported Juncker in the election was mainly due to a lack of alternative candidates, and her (mistaken) belief that in the end, she would not be bound by her decision.

As soon as Europe’s social democrats realised that they could make Merkel look like a fool for failing to support her own candidate, they became the most glowing supporters of Juncker. Juncker’s new fan club comprises the same people who fought him until a fortnight ago in the election campaign. That may be ironic but it makes perfect sense. The chances of duping Angela Merkel have never been better.

To add insult to injury for the German Chancellor, across the channel British Prime Minister David Cameron is causing even more trouble. Cameron could not live with a Juncker presidency either but for different reasons. Not only does Juncker stand for the kind of pro-European, integrationist policies that are deeply unpopular in Britain, but by having the European Parliament support Juncker as its candidate, it would shift the EU further towards a state-like structure in which the legislature chooses the executive.

For Cameron, both thoughts (Juncker as President and the EU as a proper federation) are an anathema so he is threatening Merkel to hold Britain’s ‘in or out’ referendum on EU membership not in 2017 as planned but before next year’s British elections. The results under these circumstances would be predictable and would see Britain withdraw from the EU, which would be a massive blow to Merkel. She needs the eurosceptic Brits to balance the pro-integrationist French.

It is a strange scenario that is unfolding in Brussels, and it is unlikely to have a happy ending. If Juncker does not become the Commission’s new president, it raises questions about what these elections were all about and what they were worth. If he does, the procedure would have badly damaged Merkel’s standing in Europe, antagonised the EU Parliament and European heads of government and put Britain on a course towards exiting the EU.

None of this was unavoidable. If Europe’s centre-right parties would have only thought for a second what an unpleasant prospect it might be to actually win the European elections, they might have worked a bit harder to avoid this fate. Or they may have nominated a different lead candidate. Or none at all.

Now it’s too late. They have won the elections and have to live with the results.