Relationship with Merkel crucial to Juncker as commission president

Former Luxembourg prime minister seen as willing to engage with UK on changes

European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker: he is eager to play down his federalist reputation, saying he is “allergic to this term ‘the United States of Europe’”. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker: he is eager to play down his federalist reputation, saying he is “allergic to this term ‘the United States of Europe’”. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

 

The outcome was inevitable.

Jean-Claude Juncker was chosen by the European Council yesterday as the man to lead the European Commission over the next five years, despite strong opposition from Britain.

While EU officials said the atmosphere at the informal dinner in Ypres on Thursday night was surprisingly relaxed, David Cameron was back in fighting form yesterday. Following the vote he denounced the decision to nominate Juncker, attacking the “cosy consensus” that led 26 out of 28 countries to back the former Luxembourg prime minister.

In reality the deal was long done before Cameron arrived in Belgium. Momentum has been gathering behind Juncker’s candidacy for the past two weeks.

It was not always thus, however. Two days after the results of the European elections on May 27th German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that other names could be in the frame. But negative coverage in the German press as well as pressure from her junior coalition partner nudged the chancellor from tentative support to all-out endorsement. Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s decision to host a quartet of EU leaders including Cameron and Merkel on June 9th and 10th marked a turning point.

Cameron isolated
As the German chancellor stood beside her British counterpart and expressed support for Juncker, it became clear that the lady was not for turning. From that moment, member states who had previously indicated support for Britain’s position deserted

Cameron, leaving him isolated yesterday, but for the support of Hungary. Even Taoiseach Enda Kenny rang Juncker last Saturday, almost a week before his official nomination.

What are the implications of Juncker’s accession to the European Commission’s top job? The most fundamental question is whether it sets a precedent for the appointment of commission president.

The surprise decision yesterday to review the Spitzenkandidat system, by which the political groups in the European Parliament nominate candidates for the European Commission role, is likely to infuriate the parliament.

Nonetheless, the probability that the parliament will play a decisive role in the leadership of the commission represents a significant shift in the balance of power between the EU institutions.

Opponents of the system argue that involving the political groupings risks politicising the commission. They also argue that the system rules out any sitting prime minister from assuming the role, given that prospective candidates must declare their interest months in advance.

Good negotiator
How will Juncker’s appointment affect the style and substance of the commission? Juncker’s experience and ability is undisputed – as prime minister of Luxembourg for 18 years and head of the euro group for a decade he has a strong command of EU issues. Despite some views in the British media, he is regarded as a good negotiator and deal-maker, and someone who would be willing to engage with Britain as it seeks to wrench changes from the EU. He is also keen to play down his federalist reputation, telling an audience in Berlin last Tuesday that he is “allergic to this term ‘the United States of Europe’”. “Nations are here to stay,” he added.

As the leader of a small European member state, Juncker has a reputation for standing up to big countries when required, though there is nothing to suggest he advocated for Ireland at any stage in the bailout negotiations. It is unclear whether he would support Ireland’s claim for further debt relief through the European Stability Mechanism fund over the coming years.

On a personal level, controversy over his drinking habits has surfaced during the campaign, with his successor as head of the euro group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, publicly referring to Juncker’s, describing his predecessor as “a heavy smoker and drinker”.

One of the risks of the Spitzenkandidat system is that Juncker may be beholden to various constituencies who lent him their support in the fractious leadership contest. Leaders of the centre-left Socialist and Democrats (S&D) group have already called for tangible commitments from him to reassess tough EU budgetary targets.

Juncker has also been lobbied already for key portfolios in the commission, with Dijsselbloem understood to be interested in the economic and monetary affairs portfolio.

Relationship with Merkel
But as always in the world of EU politics, Juncker’s relationship with Merkel will be crucial. EU officials believe that S&D candidate, German socialist Martin Schulz (now likely to be reinstated as European Parliament president), was the Spitzenkandidat most feared by Merkel. Even so, she is not believed to be a particular fan of Juncker.

Attention is now turning to Juncker’s cabinet of senior officials, with a number of Merkel allies expected to have a presence. Nonetheless, Juncker’s ability to negotiate with Britain is likely to be seen as one of the defining attributes of his tenure as commission president.

 

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