European Elections 2014: Same Old Novelty

By Giorgio Buttironi

Just before the polls, I took the liberty of analysing the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in this magazine. Besides sharing some common facts, I also illustrated the novelties in the upcoming election following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. New provisions for the election of the President of the European Commission, and the consequent choice of spitzenkandidaten by various party groups, figured chiefly among them. An important question was left open before the polls opened, would these elections be the ‘same old story’ or would they represent a ‘significant novelty’ in the history of the European Union. It is time to find out.

The Electoral Surge in Euroscepticism

This parliamentary election will be remembered for the strong surge in support for Eurosceptic parties across member states. Besides the victory of the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain – having topped the ballot with 27.5% of the vote – other member states have seen surprising results for Eurosceptic parties. The victory of the National Front in France with 24.8% of the vote came as a terrible blow to both the incumbent Socialist government and the main centre-right opposition.

Despite the magnitude of these results, the European Parliament (EP) still counts a significant majority of MEPs favouring pro-European values. The three oldest party groups – including the European People’s Party, the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats – alone account for 479 out of 751 seats in the EP, roughly equivalent to 63%. On the other hand, Eurosceptic MEPs have increased significantly after the last election in comparison to the previous parliament. The most prominent anti-federalist party groups are the European Conservatives and Reformists, the European United Left, and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy. The ECR opposes a federalist EU and advocates the repatriation of certain key powers back to the member states, while the EUL opposes the current framework of neo liberal monetarist policies in the EU. The EFDD is by far the most Eurosceptic group because, contrarily to the former two, it opposes outright any further move towards deeper EU integration. While only 148 MEPs could be regarded as Eurosceptic before this election, the number increased to 222 MEPs (almost 20% of the entire assembly). Moreover the ECR has become the third largest group in Strasbourg with 70 MEPs, which is not too bad counting that the group itself is only five years old.

The Spitzenkandidaten Process

Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union, after the modifications applied by the Lisbon Treaty, explains how “Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission”.

This means that – for the first time since 1979 – the political makeup of the European Parliament is determinant in electing the holder of the highest office in the EU. Prior to the elections, each EP party group formally designated a spitzenkandidat (top candidate) for President of the Commission in an effort to create a more direct link between the popular vote and the future makeup of the Commission. Since the European People’s Party secured the highest number of seats in the EP, many argued that its top candidate – Jean-Claude Juncker – has a legitimate mandate to be the next Commission President, in accordance with Article 17.7 of the TEU.

The Election of Jean-Claude Juncker

On 15th July 2014, a large majority in the EP elected Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission. The former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who was supported by 422 out of 751 MEPs, will formally succeed the incumbent president José Manuel Barroso in November 2014.

Nevertheless, Juncker’s bid for the commission’s presidency has not been devoid of controversies and opposition by more Eurosceptic leaders. His candidacy was most notably opposed by David Cameron (British Prime Minister) and Viktor Orban (Prime Minister of Hungary). The principal reasons for this opposition lie in Juncker’s political credentials, as well as the belief that the wording of the TEU has been interpreted in a manner that increases the power of the European Parliament, thus taking it away from the member states.

Having served as President of the Eurogroup (Council of Finance Ministers of the Eurozone) throughout the recession, Juncker has acquired a reputation as an insider to European institutions; moreover he has never made a secret of his federalist credentials. With Juncker as Commission President, a successful renegotiation in the relationship between the EU and the UK – involving the repatriation of certain policy areas to Westminster – might very well be in jeopardy. Quite plainly, Jean-Claude Juncker represents an idea of Europe that a majority of the British people and several other individuals across the continent have firmly rejected.

The other controversy surrounds the ‘narrow’ interpretation of Article 17.7 of the TEU, which does not literally state that the top candidate of the largest EP party group must become Commission President. On the contrary, the treaty affirms that the electoral results must be taken into account before putting forward a candidate. The spitzenkandidaten process is the result of a parliamentary initiative by a majority of party groups and does not have a firm legal basis in the treaties, besides the requirement of parliamentary approval for the selected presidential candidate.

Same Old Novelty

Thinking carefully about the whole matter, very little has changed in the dynamics of the selection process for the top EU post. Certainly, there have been efforts to make the process look more in line with the relative majority of votes across Europe, but the mechanism remains awfully familiar. Rather than having heads of state and government selecting an unelected bureaucrat, we find ourselves with a bunch of party officials selecting another unelected figure for Commission President. The ritual might be different in appearance, but the substance of the process remains unchanged from previous examples. Instead of elected heads of state and government hammering out a compromise candidate, we now have often unelected party officials selecting a partisan figure with a well-defined agenda.

Looking at the spitzenkandidaten process, it is worth posing once again the question: is it the same old story or are we dealing with a significant novelty? My reply would quite frankly be: “it’s the same old novelty”. Although several observers have hailed the advent of spitzenkandidaten as a democratic turn in EU’s institutions, it seems fair to say that little has actually changed in substance.  The democratic deficit of the European Union is still wide open.