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Juncker versus Schulz et al. and the law of unintended consequences

The parliament and the council are supposed to make their decision on May 29 – it may yet become a pivotal day in European political history – says Tim McNamara

The race to be the next president of the European Commission is seemingly a simple contest between Martin Schulz – German, of the centre-left, and currently president of the European Parliament – and Jean-Claude Juncker. The latter being a former prime minister of Luxembourg and of the centre-right. Their respective party blocs in the EP have nominated both.

The right for the EP to nominate a candidate for the commission president role for the first time has come about because of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty – specifically Article 17.7. Previous to which it had been the responsibility of the political leaders of the member states – acting as the European Council – to decide amongst themselves.

However, Herman Van Rompuy in his role as president of the European Council is bitterly opposed to the EP playing the decisive role in choosing the next commission president. He believes that the European Council retains the power to veto any candidate and nominate an alternative one – although the successful candidate will still have to gain the support of a majority of MEPs.

Consequently, there appears to be a battle royal brewing between the member states – collectively and individually – and the EP over democratic legitimacy, constitutional authority and political power. Add to the mix the horse-trading that will take place for the other major positions in the European Union executive and the scope for bitterness and rancour will become self-evident.

The EP has recently flexed its muscles by establishing a protocol among the EP’s largest party groups. This entails that whichever party group is the largest after the May 22 European elections will have the support of a majority of the newly-elected MEPs for their candidate to be commission president. Simply put, either Juncker or Schulz will have a strong democratic claim to be appointed. Furthermore, there are constitutional and political implications to be addressed that currently appear not to have been thought through.

Firstly, a commission president having the democratic legitimacy of being supported by a majority in the parliament could be a much more emboldened post-holder than previous incumbents. The commission may become more influential and authoritative under a leader with a self-perceived democratic mandate, albeit an indirect one. A commission more closely allied with the parliament would inevitably present unforeseeable challenges to the ‘supremacy’ of the council – challenges that the council would want to avoid.

If whoever is the preferred parliament candidate for commission president fails to get the support of the council, this may be viewed by some member states as advantageous to the status quo in respect of their political inter-relationship.

Secondly, it is a constitutional convention that no parliament can tie the hand of a succeeding parliament; hence the agreed protocol amongst the party groups cannot be enforced after May 22. The EP’s election for MEPs’ preference as commission president will be by secret ballot. Therefore, there can be no guarantee that the party groups’ discipline will hold as their MEPs will be able to vote for whoever they want, with impunity. Thirdly, the role of member states’ constituent parties will come into play. In that many MEPs loyalties will be tested if their national parties do not support – or see political advantage in not supporting – the respective candidate for their pan-EU party group.

If there is a stand-off between the council and the parliament over who is to become the next commission president, then Juncker and Schulz will have to be discounted as credible candidates. But what may remain is a recalcitrant parliament extremely reluctant to accept any of the council’s preferred candidates for quite some time.

Although the EP and the council are supposed to make their decision on May 27, it is more than likely that the new parliament will not be in a position to take a vote of all MEPs until a full plenary session is held. This is due to be either on the July 1-3 or July 14-17. It may yet become a pivotal decision in European political history. it should be noted that president Barroso’s term of office does not finish until October 31, giving plenty of time for unintended consequences to play out.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission

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