Opinion: What’s going on in Brussels? Nominations to the European Commission

Charlemagne is back in EuropeFollowing on from my post last week on post-election developments in Brussels, here’s the second of two updates. Whilst yesterday’s focused on developments concerning the formation of political groups in the Parliament itself, today’s will address issues regarding nominations to the European Commission.

It now looks likely that at its meeting later this week (from 26th to 27th June), the European Council (made up of the Heads of Government from all 28 EU countries) will nominate the Parliament’s preferred candidate for the post of President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Juncker was the leading candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) which won the most seats in May’s election, although far short of a majority, and subsequently become the front-runner for the EU’s top job.

The attempts to block Juncker’s nomination, led by the David Cameron and supported by both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, have thus far failed to gain traction. I suspect this has a lot to do with the toxicity of British Euro-scepticism in other European capitals, a by-product of Cameron’s veto-that-never-was back in 2011 not to mention successive UK Prime Ministers throwing their toys out of the pram to please the British home crowd. As a result, we now appear to have reached a state where the best way to kill off an EU proposal is for the British PM to argue in favour of it!

If Cameron does not get his way, it’s been suggested that there would be some consolation prize for the UK, as it were. But Juncker has himself ruled out the possibility of giving the new British Commissioner a super-portfolio covering the internal market, competition, trade and energy. Just what any such consolation might eventually be, therefore, is not at all clear. (Interestingly, European Voice recently published a fascinating editorial on the perils of horse-trading EU jobs and its consequent effect on the authority of the new Commission that’s well worth a read.)

Martin Schulz, leading candidate of the Party of European Socialists (which includes the British Labour Party), has spoken openly of seeking a Commission job for himself, potentially making his own appointment as Vice-President of the Commission a requirement to gain his Parliamentary group’s support for a Juncker presidency (necessary for Juncker to be elected). This is made more complicated because Schulz is German and would therefore need to be nominated to the Commission by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a post that would usually go to one of her own Christian Democrats in the EPP.

Finally, four European Commissioners are stepping down to take up seats in the Parliament (Olli Rehn from Finland, Viviane Reding from Luxembourg, Antonio Tajani from Italy, and Janusz Lewandowski from Poland). Their countries will therefore also have to decide whether to send temporary substitutes until the new Commission is formed nearer the end of the year, or permanent replacements who will continue on under the new Commission President (though if/when Juncker becomes President he will take up Luxembourg’s slot ).

 

* Matt McLaren is a longstanding Liberal Democrat, current Chair of Campaigns for Enfield Local Party and former MEP candidate for Greater London.

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26 Comments

  • Stephen Harte 24th Jun '14 - 3:15pm

    isn’t Juncker’s party in opposition in Luxembourg? I assume the governing coalition would not pass up the chance of one of their country folk to be Commission President just becuas ehe is in the wrong party.

  • matt (Bristol) 24th Jun '14 - 3:32pm

    In hindsight, the EU constitution emerges as yet another fudge designed to keep debate behind closed doors as much aspossible, which the spitzenkandidat system has dragged out into the light (awkwardly).
    The EU Parliament should not be a unicameral legislature for a centrallised ‘state’, it should funciton as a democratic advocate, scrutineer and initiator of legislation within a federal entity; so checks and balances are needed. National governments should have a say, but what they say should be a matter of public record. Candidates should NOT ’emerge’.
    Why not have an ‘electoral college’ appointment process in which equally-weighted votes on a pre-declared slate of candidates take place near-simultaneously in the European Council, the EU Parliament and across the EU as part of the EU Parliament elecitons?

  • jedibeeftrix 24th Jun '14 - 10:36pm

    stick to the news, leave editorial well alone Matthew.

  • Why does Nick Clegg oppose Juncker’s nomination? Has he explained? Is this the position of the parliamentary party? When was it decided? Is it the position of the wider Party? What is the Party’s position on how the Presidents of the Commission and the Council should be decided?

    Nick Clegg appears to have created a vacuum: does he support or oppose the Lisbon agreements? Does he accept that Guy Verhofstadt’s nomination is no longer on the table? Is Nick Clegg saying ‘me too’ simply because he does not want to get involved this time?

    I would like to think that he is content to stand by and watch Cameron dig a deeper hole, however the Party does need to find a clear position. I thought when Guy Verhofstadt was our contender that the position was clear; now it is not, when did it change?

    I do wonder what happened in Clegg’s meeting with Van Rompuy. What was there to say?

  • @jedibeeftrix – I think Matt is so far doing a good job of separating the two, it seems his articles are staying focused on the news and only providing editorial comment in the comments section in response to things others raise.

  • @Matt – I found your blog article summarising the candidate selection for the Presidency of the European Commission interesting and informative. My comment here focuses on this as this has been an underlying theme to all your three LDV articles todate, even though it is probably off topic.

    I think like many what has been overlooked is that todate the modus operandi seems to have been that the Council selects a candidate and the Parliament rubber stamps the selection. I suggest that perhaps the time has come for the Parliament to not rubber stamp the appointment of the Council’s candidate – even if the candidate is also preferred by the EPP group in the Parliament; something I would strongly recommend if the Parliament seriously wants greater integration and union!

    A real challenge facing the EU is that it’s politics is still effectively national; there is no person or group that can claim any form of pan-EU democratic mandate in the Council, Commission and Parliament; which has to be a real concern moving forward.

    I suggest the obvious and most visible change is to change the way the President is elected. Fundamentally given the President is effectively the leader of the EU and exercise significant influence over the Commission’s agenda and hence direction of the EU, it is obvious that the President should be ‘directly’ elected by the people, yes both the Council and Parliament can propose candidates, but their appointment is only achieved via the ballot box.

    I think you are right that a pan-EU ‘electoral college’ appointment process is needed, as this ensures that the successful candidate has substantial support distributed throughout the member countries of the EU. It also means candidate’s agenda’s have to be pan-EU in nature…

    So getting back on topic!
    The question is how likely is it that the Parliament will use the Presidential appointment as an opportunity to remind the Council and Commission about the need for democratic accountability and to enhance it’s position in the governance of the EU.

  • @Stephen W
    “Associate member, free-trade, non-political membership” means what exactly?
    Is that the Norway/Switzerland option whereby we still have to pay for access to the single market and adopt all the laws passed in Brussels, but without having a vote or influence? No thanks.

  • @Stephen – Drifted or just seeing things differently?
    There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times (22-Jun-14 News Review) covering Margaret Thatcher in which her actions on Europe were mentioned, but what was relevant here was a side piece covering an interview with Radek Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/features/article1425022.ece – pay to view article) . The key passages are:

    “… contemporary Britain, with all its mix of multiculturalism and Farage-esqe Brussels bashing, something of a puzzle to him. “I came to this country for the first time in 1980, and Britain now is much more European than it was then” says Sikorski, 51. “Yet the politics are much more eurosceptic. That is the paradox.” … We may love European food and drink, and the ease of [Travel]… But we’re not so keen on the steady stream of regulations from Brussels – or the feeling our destiny is in the hands of foreigners.

    For Sikorski the real reason is more fundamental. “Britain is unique in Europe i n many ways,” he says. “For all other nation European countries, joining the EU was somehow a national success” … “Whereas for you, joining the EU was an admission of your failure to be able to go it alone or with the Commonwealth.”

    An interesting observation on why Britain is uncomfortable in its relationship and dealings with Europe.

  • Three arguments I have seen “for why Britain sees things differently from the rest of Europe”:

    1 We are an island – Do Cyprus and Malta see things differently?

    2 We had a large empire / commonwealth – Does France see things differently?

    3 We have not been invaded successfully since 1066 – this does make us rather different from most others.

    The political timidity in Britain has been observable since Churchill made his declaration for a united Europe, specifically excluding Britain. It was there when we didn’t make any attempt to join the Coal and Steel Community in the 40s and 50s. It was there when we argued without coming to agreement in the 60s. It was there in the early 70s when many politicians didn’t want to discuss the political aspect of Europe for the referendum, although that was the KEY point of difference with the alternative – sticking with EFTA. And in the mid to late 70s, when we insisted on nominating to the first European Parliament, instead of participating in the election as other nations did.

    It is a long, and sour history. Had our politicians (with the possible honourable exceptions of Ted Heath and Roy Jenkins) shown more political guts then, we would probably not be in this dreadful UKIP inspired nowhere land in relation to the rest of the continent. It simply doesn’t make logical sense.

  • If by a “successful invasion” you mean the introduction of outside forces leading to a change in government, then England was “successfully invaded” in 1470 and 1471 and 1485 and 1688. If by “successful invasion” you simply mean the introduction of sufficient forces to tie up government forces for a prolonged period of time, then there were “successful invasions” in 1139 and 1216 and 1685 and 1745 and probably other occasions.

  • @Tim – You are forgetting or perhaps you glossing over, the circumstances around Britain’s entry into the EEC: remember Britain first applied in 1961 and was repeatedly vetoed by De Gaulle (his way of saying thanks for letting him stay in Britain during WWII and thus probably saving his life …?) and was only accepted into membership after his death; but even then some of the terms offered could be seen as attempt to humiliate the British… So to suggest the UK preferred to stay with the EFTA rather than join the EEC is a gross misrepresentation of circumstances.

    This isn’t to say that it is all someone else’s fault that Britain isn’t fully committed to the ‘European project’, just that there is history on both sides of the channel that can impede the relationship…

  • I really wish someone would explain the Party’s position on the nomination of the President of the Commission and explain how Nick Clegg’s opposition to Juncker fits in with this.

    It seems a complete mess. I cannot make sense of it at all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jun '14 - 10:45am

    Martin

    I really wish someone would explain the Party’s position on the nomination of the President of the Commission and explain how Nick Clegg’s opposition to Juncker fits in with this.

    The whole of the British press just seems to be fixated on this idea that Juncker is a bad person, and has written everything up on those terms. It’s a quite appalling hate campaign. I suspect that hardly anyone in this country knew who he was a few weeks ago, but now while they still don’t know who he is, they have been trained to see him as a figure to hate, and Nick Clegg feels he has to jump on the bandwagon and join in this hate campaign because he’ll attacked mercilessly (well, even more mercilessly than usual) if he doesn’t.

    I’d love to see a pro-Juncker campaign started up here. Can someone produce some “I love Juncker” badges and posters? I’d proudly display them, not because I regard Juncker as particularly the best person for the job, but, hey, seeing who is coming out and attacking him like that, there must be something good about him, yes? If you hate Cameron and Clegg, wear your “I love Juncker” badge with pride.

  • Martin
    There’s plenty of explanation on the threads on European Parliamentary politics running here.

  • Sorry – I see it above, which I assume means you don’t regard it as explanation. Tell us what you mean, “explanation” and I am sure there are those of us here will give you what you want! (or not, as the case may be).

  • Tim13: I put the questions in my earlier comment in this thread. There appears to be no logic, nor any sense that Nick Clegg is talking for anyone other than himself. Last month I was quite sure that we went into the elections on the basis of support for Guy Verhofstadt, implying that we were engaging with the principles set out in the Lisbon accord.

    What does it mean if Nick Clegg says he does not support Juncker’s nomination? Surely he cannot seriously advocate that Verhofstadt is still a runner. Why is Nick Clegg (and Miliband) associating himself with Cameron’s futile attempt to overturn the treaty and dismiss the EU elections?

    Matthew Huntbach: I fear that you are quite right: has Clegg jumped on this bandwagon as what seems like the easiest course? In fact it is a negation of his IN Europe message that personally I had felt was needed (even if there were aspects of the execution of the campaign, I wish had been done differently). It is all the more odd in that Juncker must be fairly close to Clegg in political outlook, certainly as a conservative, to the left of Cameron. Does Clegg actually have an objection to Juncker in any kind of evidence based sense? Moreover Clegg has been an MEP: it is fairly evident that Cameron wants the Parliament to be an irrevelency, but does Clegg as well?

    Clegg owes it to the Party to explain himself on this.

    I have long known about Juncker, whilst there are some issues hanging around him that are difficult to explain here, they have almost nothing to do with anything Cameron or the media are saying.

  • jedibeeftrix 26th Jun '14 - 8:09pm

    @ Martin – “Why is Nick Clegg (and Miliband) associating himself with Cameron’s futile attempt to overturn the treaty and dismiss the EU elections?”

    Why?

    Because he has an eye on 2017!

  • Jedi: rooting around, I discover that it has all been a contradictory, illogical cock up. Put together these two links and anyone can see why.

    From March: http://liberator-magazine.blogspot.de/2014/03/clegg-picks-non-runner.html

    From a few days ago: http://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/100296/nick_clegg_interview_on_herman_van_rompuy_.html

    It would not be sensible to attribute any forward planning for this.

    Incredibly something similar seems to have happened with Labour. Without any planning, the upshot has been that bar the Greens, all UK political groupings managed to deprive the election of what for the rest of the EU was a key issue.

    I thought I was voting for the Party of IN, but it turns out to have been IN but not quite.

  • jedibeeftrix 26th Jun '14 - 10:54pm

    ” all UK political groupings managed to deprive the election of what for the rest of the EU was a key issue.”

    i accept it might have been a cock up, but i dispute the use of “deprive”, for it suggests something we were all really harking after.

  • The time to campaign against Juncker was during the election campaign. But in the UK only the Greens bothered to do that. I followed the debates between the leading candidates – Verhofstadt had lots of accolades, among the standard ones being that he and the Greens’ Ska Keller came over as the only real reformists. With the exception of the debates against Farage (and could it be that those were designed to further boost Farage’s popularity, thus ensuring more Lib Dem seats in 2015?) I registered way too little interest in the EU elections from the Lib Dems, just endless references to “jobs” (and then the other side just says “jobs” back). To me the Lib Dems are looking like the party of Doesn’t Really Care, which isn’t good enough when you consider what’s at stake.

  • Martin I can’t understand where Clegg is coming from on this, either. It all seems to add up to a failure to think through properly, and an ability to say anything when you feel you have to. Although why he felt he even had to in these circumstances, goodness knows.. All of a piece with his failure to argue any proper political case against Farage.

  • What is Clegg doing coming up with this sort of anti-parliament stuff? Vince Cable, too. It’s shameful.

    “the European Commission, which is the principal decision‑making body in Brussels, shouldn’t become a plaything of the European Parliament – of MEPs – but there should be and continue to be a major role in this appointment for national governments as well, directly elected by the people of the European Union in each member state.”

  • Alex Macfie 28th Jun '14 - 1:44pm

    Explains why Clegg was so willing to let Farage set the framework for the Europe4an election campaign, and agree with FDarage that what MEPs actually do — namely help shape the laws and policies that affect the EU as a whole —doesn’t actually matter, and that the campaign should be about something that MEPs have no influence over, namely the UK’s role in the EU. Clegg and Farage are at one here: Clegg doesn’t want people to know that MEPs have power because he wants everything to be done by stitch-ups among national governments, and Farage because he doesn’t want people to know that voters can help decide how the EU should look and act.

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