Jean-Claude Juncker elected as candidate for EU commission president. Michael Debets/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Nothing underlines more dramatically the yawning gulf between British politicians and their European Union counter-parts than the confrontation over whether Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime minister, should become the next president of the European Commission. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is likely to be humiliatingly isolated in opposition to Juncker when a decision is taken by EU heads of government shortly.
All but a handful of EU leaders want Juncker to be given the job. More strikingly, the great majority of elected members of the European Parliament – including Social Democrats, Liberals, Greens and left socialists who do not share Juncker’s centre-right Christian Democrat politics – also support his nomination.
David Cameron, his deputy and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and even the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, all find this bewildering. They do not understand that it is not that Juncker’s supporters are all persuaded by his personality or intellect or that they endorse all his economic, political or social policies.
They are persuaded by the fact that Juncker emerged with the clearest mandate to become president as a result of the first, timid, steps taken to make the process of deciding Commission presidents more democratic. His European Peoples Party emerged with most seats in the recently European Parliament election – the first to offer voters a choice of who should become Commission president.
Under EU law the final decision will be taken by EU heads of government in the European Council. But the EU Treaties now require them to “take account of the European Parliament elections.” But the European Parliament has the power to reject any other candidate which the leaders might try to impose on them.
British voters do have a legitimate complaint. None of them had the opportunity to vote for Juncker. But he is not to blame for that. The Conservative Party withdrew from the European Peoples’ Party under pressure from its Euro-sceptic right. And the Tories nominated no alternative candidate of their own.
The other major UK parties did not cover themselves in glory either. The Labour Party did not make mention anywhere of the candidate chosen by the Party of Socialists and Democrats - of which it is a member - the German Social Democrat, Martin Schultz. Moreover Labour excised almost all references to the EU or to its key policy challenges from its own election literature.
Labour now claims that they cannot support Juncker because of his support for the disastrous Euro-area austerity strategy. But the party leadership also refuses support for Schultz - who was the runner up in the election - in spite of his pro-growth policies - because he is a “federalist.”
The Liberal Democrats kept the candidacy of their EU party, Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister, a virtual secret as well. Only the Greens ran a positive campaign behind their presidency candidate, the German environmentalist Ska Keller.
The United Left Alliance, who backed the charismatic leader of the Greek Syriza, Alexis Tsipras (anti-austerity but pro-Euro) for Commission president ran an EU wide campaign but had no sister party in Britain.
Cameron’s post election strategy to block Juncker has consisted of vitriolic attacks against him for being opposed to “EU reform” and being a “diehard federalist.” Yes: that dread word again.
By federalist, Cameron means someone who believes that to overcome the crisis and its longer term challenges some further deepening of economic and political integration is needed. He knows perfectly well that this does not necessarily imply a fully fledged European federal state. On Cameron’s definition most of the EU leaders – including Angela Merkel – are paid up federalists.
His biggest blunder has been to threaten publicly that if Juncker leads the Commission, UK exit from the EU would follow. He may not personally really believe this, but he has felt obliged to say so in order to keep his increasingly shrill rightwing anti-European MPs at bay. They, however, do mean it. But the other EU leaders, with the exception of a few such as the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, are increasingly angered by British bullying.
Tory Euro-sceptics do not trust the Prime Minister to conduct a so-called re-negotiation of the terms of Britain’s EU membership and are delighted at his prospective humiliation. If this setback is followed by a vote for Scottish independence later this year, Cameron may not survive the year end as Tory leader.
He may still hope for is a deal among EU leaders in which Juncker leads the Commission, but has to pursue even more neo-liberal economic “reforms.” This, Cameron might then claim, as some sort of a compensating victory.
None of this really touches on the most urgent changes in EU policy now being demanded by an alienated and angry electorate. The EU leaders knows they will have to compromise on their disastrous austerity strategy. This may include easing the timetable for debt reduction (particularly a French and Italian demand) but also by approving a substantial programme of investment particularly in the impoverished southern European economies.
Even the German government suspects it may have to change track after the political shock increase released by the European Parliament elections. The right of centre EU establishment is keeping a nervous eye on the growing challenge from the new, pro-European radical left parties – such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Demands for an EU economic and social New Deal based on sustainable growth policies are growing everywhere.
In Britain the nominally pro-European parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been cowed into silent submission by the toxic wave of UKIP and right wing Tory Euro-scepticism.
Until they discover how to articulate a positive European strategy they will be vulnerable to further UKIP predation. In the EU they may come to be seen as nearly as irrelevant to the future of Europe as the Conservatives.