Well, this time it certainly is different. The furious row about who should succeed José Manuel Barroso as President of the European Commission, and how and by whom that person should be chosen, vindicates those who have long argued that each of the EU level political parties should field champions in the European Parliamentary elections.
The Spitzenkandidaten experiment has raised the stakes. The competition between the top candidates has introduced a real EU dimension which previous electoral campaigns for the European Parliament have lacked. Admittedly, these guys have not become federal folk heroes over night, but their engagement in a party political contest at the European level is a useful first stab at making a reality of post-national parliamentary Europe. The ball now lies, where the Treaty says it should, in the hands of Herman Van Rompuy who acts as informateur (in the Belgian sense) on behalf of the European Council. He must propose a candidate who can command a qualified majority in the European Council and an absolute majority in the European Parliament.
Van Rompuy’s job is eased because the top candidates Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt are of a calibre to be Commission President. David Cameron, feckless as ever, may continue to protest that all three are too federalist, left-wing or old-fashioned for the British voter to stomach in his threatened referendum. But the British prime minister has no veto on the nomination. Angela Merkel, at the end of the misconceived mini-summit at Harpsund, was quite right to tell him: ‘We cannot just consign to the backburner the question of the European spirit. Threats are not part and parcel of that spirit’.
The quartet in the Harpsund rowing boat was correct in one sense, however, in that personalities are not everything and that Commission programmes also matter. This may be particularly so for the next five years because the new European Parliament, more fractious and incoherent than before, is unlikely, at least at first, to be able to act strategically. In the absence of any obviously strong candidate to take over from Van Rompuy at the European Council, it is to the Commission that we must look for leadership.
What they stand for
It is odd, given these circumstances, that so little attention has actually been paid to the published political programmes of the three main Spitzenkandidaten.
Jean-Claude Juncker has five priorities as Commission President. They are, in order, the creation of a digital single market, the development of a common EU energy union, the negotiation of the trade and investment partnership with the USA, and the continued reform of the economic and monetary union, where he wants to strengthen the eurogroup, which he once chaired. Juncker the Social Christian would introduce a social impact assessment to future troika programmes for the weaker eurozone countries, and create a ‘targeted fiscal capacity’ for the eurozone to work if necessary as an automatic stabilizer – ‘a shock-absorber’. This implies that the new fiscal capacity is a large one, requiring a proper treasury facility, funded with revenue raised by autonomous federal taxes. Juncker would also insist that the Commission represent the eurozone at the IMF.
His fifth main priority is to sort out the British problem. That is bold. He promises to ‘work for a fair deal with Britain’, while preventing the UK from blocking the deeper fiscal integration that is required by the eurozone. Despite Cameron’s insults, Juncker intends to talk back to him ‘in a fair and reasonable manner’. He identifies the British specificities which need to be catered for in the renegotiated terms of British membership: rejection of the euro and Schengen, and opt-outs from justice and home affairs. But he makes it plain that the UK will not be allowed to jeopardise the integrity of the single market, including the principle of free movement.
In two interesting codicils to his five main points, Juncker spells out what he would like to see in the way of common asylum and immigration policies. These include burden sharing for asylum seekers, an extension of the ‘blue card’ system for legal migration (which excludes the UK), and a stronger role for Frontex. As far as foreign policy is concerned, Juncker wants to turn the High Representative into a proper Foreign Minister and to move forward to develop, under the terms of the Lisbon treaty, a core group for military cooperation, including arms procurement.
The comparable policy programmes of the other Spitzenkandidaten are similar. The Liberal Guy Verhofstadt would put more emphasis on the development of federal democracy as a corollary to fiscal integration. He stresses the need to complete a proper banking union and on the capacity of eurobonds to finance Europe’s infrastructure. Verhofstadt proposes an EU unemployment insurance scheme to encourage the mobility of labour.
Social Democrat Martin Schulz wants to fight against tax evasion and to give greater latitude to the application of EU competition policy. He pledges to ‘enhance the growth dimension of the Stability and Growth Pact’. Like Verhofstadt, Schulz emphasises the importance of European values and fundamental rights.
So all three programmes outline proposals for structural reforms and strategic projects whose purpose are to deepen Europe’s integration. Before the full programme of the new Commission is launched at the end of the year, the President-elect, whomever it is, needs to reflect in greater depth on how exactly the step change is to be made away from the over-centralised coordination of national economic policies towards the delivery of a common macro-economic policy, democratically accountable at the EU level.
Contrary to British claims, none of the three top candidates to replace Barroso is saying ‘business as usual’. All are committed in one way or the other to the internal enlargement of the Union – expansion of the membership of the eurozone and Schengen areas, a gradual reduction in the number of opt-outs and exceptionalisms which litter the treaty, the development of core groups in foreign policy, security and defence, the better use of the enhanced cooperation provisions of the treaties to complete the single market, and a deepening of collaboration in police and justice policy in the fight against crime.
The British problem just gets worse
The result of the European elections leaves the UK with even fewer friends in Brussels than it had before. The UK’s insistence on a revision of the treaties to loosen its ties with the EU compounds the problem. The new European Parliament has the right to insist that the overhaul of the treaties is conducted in a full-blown constitutional Convention. David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership will have to find its place on the agenda of such a Convention whose main purpose will be a push in the federal direction.
The British prime minister should know that a Convention provides no hiding place: only good proposals for reform which command a consensus on their own merits will surface at the end of the process. We wait with trepidation to see the catalogue of demands Cameron is to make on his partners. If his bid is not pitched at settling Europe’s British problem for good, he will be laughed out of court. His antagonism against Juncker hardly starts the British renegotiation off on a good footing besides making it even more likely that the former Luxembourg prime minister ends up in Barroso’s job.