European Commission president election controversy could hasten British exit from the EU

Opinion: EU citizens could rightly ask why the rest of the European Union is being forced to adopt a candidate because of Germany’s attachment to a system

‘The key question is whether both David Cameron and Angela Merkel have backed themselves into a political corner. Both risk losing political face if their preferred outcome is not achieved.’  Photograph: Yves Herman/AP

‘The key question is whether both David Cameron and Angela Merkel have backed themselves into a political corner. Both risk losing political face if their preferred outcome is not achieved.’ Photograph: Yves Herman/AP

Tue, Jun 17, 2014, 00:01

As the dust settles on the European elections, focus has turned to the appointment of the next European Commission president.

The question of who will lead the commission over the next five years had promised to be an exercise in in-house European Union decision-making. Instead it has become a potentially dangerous political impasse that could have serious implications for the EU.

The leadership of the commission has always been a tightly fought contest. Britain under Tony Blair vetoed the appointment of Guy Verhofstadt in 2004, for example, with the French opposed to Chris Patten and leaders settling on José Manuel Barroso instead.

But the timing of the current controversy, less than three years before Britain holds a referendum on EU membership should the Conservative Party win next year’s general election, has given the issue added urgency.

The debate over the suitability of Jean-Claude Juncker for the post has gathered huge momentum in the British media and internationally, as evidenced by British prime minister David Cameron’s article in The Irish Times last Thursday in which he outlined the reasons for his opposition to the so-called Spitzenkandidat system.

Alienation risked

But the prominence of the issue in Britain means any decision to appoint Juncker risks alienating the British public further from the EU at a key juncture in the country’s relationship with Brussels.

The origin of the current impasse stretches back more than a year, when the European Parliament mooted the innovative proposal that the next president of the commission should be linked to the results of the European elections. Citing a clause in the Lisbon Treaty that says the European Council should “take account” of the European elections, the idea was that each political group in the parliament should nominate a candidate ahead of the election, with the candidate of the “winning” party attaining the post.

Despite claims from the German media, the system never truly gained traction with voters across the rest of Europe, mostly because it was never fully endorsed by the member states and has no definite legal basis in the EU treaties.

By half-heartedly backing the process and failing to veto it at an earlier stage, EU leaders allowed the European Parliament to seize the initiative on the issue.

Britain is at fault for not raising objections to the issue earlier, though the Conservatives’ decision to leave the European People’s Party (EPP) group in 2009 meant it was on the outside looking in when the EPP selected Juncker in March.

Mixed messages

Germany is also guilty of mixed messages. Chancellor Angela Merkel was at best lukewarm in her support for Juncker a few months ago but has since come out strongly in support for his candidature, following pressure from her junior coalition partner and the German press.

The key question is whether both Cameron and Merkel have backed themselves into a political corner. Both risk losing political face if their preferred outcome is not achieved. A compromise is still possible – the appointment of Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, for example, with Juncker in a different role, is a possibility, though the fact that Juncker’s appointment has been couched as a democratic imperative makes it difficult for Merkel to back down.

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