Even if the highlight of the recent EPP conference was Bono’s “intervention”, the game was played elsewhere. The European People’s Party picked Jean-Claude Juncker as its candidate for the top Commission job ahead of next May’s EU-elections.
This was no surprise, and it’s old news, but one needs to pause for a second nonetheless.
European politics is finally becoming exciting- to the point that there is now some (vague) hope that the clash of Martin Schultz and Jean-Claude Juncker, with a strong Guy Verhostadt on the “ticket” as well, will be able to excite passions with a solid, serious debate to supplant the uneven quality of MEP hopefuls on national tickets.
These are good candidates. They are strong politicians, with a powerful political punch and significant reach. They can play politics in Brussels and they can be men of importance internationally.
This blog is partial to Juncker for reasons that are not immediately relevant. This full disclosure aside, however, the election of either Juncker or even Schultz to the presidency of the Commission will promise a renewal in the most shiny but increasingly toothless institution of the EU.
Thanks to Lisbon, leaders will not have to luxury of searching for someone who is completely unknown, completely forgotten, or completely overlooked to sit in a chair that has the indignity of remaining empty after it’s been filled. That chair has remained empty since Delors.
Delors marked the last time that the Commission could at the least pretend it had the upper hand over the Council; since then it remained a paper giant, growling but paying an out-of-tune second fiddle to the Council. Perhaps, the decline of the ECJ’s role as a motor for integration alongside the Commission was also natural.
But the Council has shown that it’s not able to move ahead, not only for procedural reasons but also because of the unwillingness to follow its own rules. By our count, 86% of Country Specific Recommendations appearing each year, per country, are recommendations repeated from the previous year. This shows not only how toothless the Commission is, but also how unwilling the Council is to implement its own rules and decisions. The example of the Stability and Growth Pact is just as well known.
As long as the combined force of the Socialists and the Christian Democrats does not fall below the 50% mark or so, the current modus vivendi can continue in Brussels, with a d’ hondt splitting of key positions remaining the basic rule in the European Parliament, and sotto voce, in the Commission as well. This would mean that either Schultz or Juncker will be certain to take over in Berlaymont.
Recent results in France are the first indication that this is likely to happen- despite the FN’s increased strength.
A strong, visible, politician-on-his-own-merit leader in Commission could revive the EU at a time when the most fervent integrationist countries are trying to pull back. The Dutch are not shy about it; the Germans are already balking at the very integration they are advocating. The French are eager to pass the buck and bide for time. In the meantime, the British, as always fearing anything that would integrate the EU into something other than a market, are clearly unhappy with both Schultz and Juncker.
Only a Delorsian leader, who believes in integration and (crucially) who knows how to forge alliances and shape-shift decisions to fit political compromise could do this. Juncker was always known to have these qualities. His term in the Eurogroup also showed that he can be a leader –even if he is best behind the scenes.
And, above all, Juncker (and Schultz) are both respected. They don’t smell like the political equivalent of moth balls. If their Commission can prove that fears about them are misplaced, and if they can prove to be as effective in EU’s top job as they were in their previous political life, this could be the last best hope for Europe to play the role it needs to- not only in terms of the international economy, but also in the post-Crimean tensions that signify a slow but deliberate realigning of the geopolitical poles.