by Kyriakos Moumoutzis
Since the elections for the European Parliament in May, public debate on European Union (EU) politics has gradually become dominated by the so-called ‘Juncker question’: the issue of the appointment of the next President of the Commission and more specifically British Prime Minister David Cameron’s opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the European People’s Party, which won the largest number of seats (221 out of 751) in the elections. Mr. Cameron’s opposition suggests a fairly good understanding of the implications of Mr. Juncker’s appointment for power relations between Member States and the European Parliament, but tends to overestimate its implications for Mr. Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU.
The President of the Commission is appointed by the European Parliament, on the basis of a proposal by the European Council (the Heads of State or Government of the Member States). According to the latest revision of the founding EU treaties, the European Council makes its proposal ‘taking into account the elections to the European Parliament’. Mr. Cameron has contested the idea that this provision of the treaties means that the European Council should propose Mr. Juncker for the post. Some theorists believe that politicians often cannot see past the next election and tend to focus on the short-term rather than the long-term consequences of their decisions. Mr. Cameron has not been such a politician in this case. He has identified the implications of such an interpretation of the treaties for power relations between Member States and the European Parliament. He has referred to this interpretation as a ‘power grab’ by the European Parliament that ‘will set a dangerous precedent for the future’. Indeed, such a precedent would likely prevent the European Council from proposing a candidate from the same party family other than the one selected by the party that won the largest number of seats in the European Parliament.
Mr. Cameron, however, does not oppose Mr. Juncker’s appointment exclusively on procedural grounds. He has also implied that Mr. Juncker is not the ‘best’ candidate for the job. He would prefer ‘someone who can deliver reform’ and who accepts that ‘Europe’s needs may best be served at the national level’. These concerns should be understood against the backdrop of Mr. Cameron’s pledge to deliver a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, once he has negotiated a ‘new settlement’ for Britain. While Mr. Cameron has not been short-sighted, he has overestimated the implications of the appointment of the President of the Commission for the changes in the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU that he would like to pursue. These changes are likely to require the consent of all national governments. Such unanimity is a legal requirement for the revision of the treaties and the pursuit of consensus remains standard informal practice in day-to-day decision-making in the EU. This limits the Commission’s influence over bargaining outcomes. Even if Mr. Cameron could secure the appointment of a President of the Commission who was entirely sympathetic to his cause, Mr. Cameron would still only be able to deliver those changes, to which no other national government objected.
Power relations between Member States and EU institutions are certainly important. In the past, national governments have felt that EU institutions have grown too powerful and they have attempted to weaken them. Britain, for example, attempted to weaken the powers of the European Court of Justice in the mid-1990s. The attempt was unsuccessful. It was, however, the other Member States that blocked Britain’s attempt then, not the President of the Commission. Similarly, it is on the other Member States that the British government should focus now in its attempts to change the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, not on Mr. Juncker’s personal preferences on the future of the EU.
Kyriakos Moumoutzis is a Lecturer in European and International Politics at King’s College London.