European leaders in Brussels have nominated Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, to be the next president of the European Commission, the powerful bureaucratic arm of the European Union.
Juncker, a European federalist, is well known for his commitment to further expanding the power of the European Union. His nomination—expected to be easily approved by the European Parliament on July 16—sends a clear signal that the European establishment has no intention of slowing the relentless march towards a United States of Europe, despite the surge of anti-EU sentiment across Europe.
Jean-Claude Juncker (r), the president-designate of the European Commission, poses with his predecessor, EC President José Manuel Barroso. (Image source: Council of the European Union)
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban were the only two leaders of the 28-member bloc to vote against Juncker during a special meeting held in Brussels on June 27.
Cameron said he was opposed not only to Juncker as a candidate, but also to the way in which his candidacy was put forward.
Previously, the president of the European Commission was selected by European leaders on the basis of consensus.
But in what many see as a power grab aimed at downgrading the influence of national governments within the EU, new rules—based on an expansive interpretation of the Lisbon Treaty (aka the European Constitution)—state that the party winning the most votes in elections for European Parliament puts forth its preferred candidate. National governments are then obliged to "nominate" the candidate, after which the individual is formally approved by the European Parliament.
Juncker was the "lead candidate" (Spitzenkandidat) of the center-right European People's Party (EPP), which won the European Parliament elections that ended on May 25. He therefore has a "popular mandate" to lead the European Commission, according to Juncker and his supporters.
Proponents of the new Spitzenkandidat system say it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the unelected European Commission. Rather than EU governments picking a candidate behind closed doors, the individual is appointed by the European Parliament, which supposedly speaks for the people.
Critics rebut that the new system amounts to an "institutional coup" because it severs any remaining direct connection with the democratic process at the national level. At least under the old system, they say, the leaders who chose the Commission president were in some way accountable to their national electorates.
Juncker's so-called popular mandate is also undermined by an analysis carried out by Open Europe, a think tank campaigning for EU reform. The analysis notes that out of a total electorate of approximately 395 million people, 40.3 million (10.2%) voted for EPP affiliated parties during the most recent election. However, this number falls to 38.4 million (9.7%) when excluding Hungary and Sweden, two countries that refused to endorse the new system.
"In reality," writes Open Europe, "far less than 9.7% can be said to have genuinely voted 'for Juncker' given that the majority (outside of his native Luxembourg) did not know that he was standing—or even who he was."
In any event, German Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully pushed for Juncker, presumably out of fear that choosing an alternative candidate—after paying lip service to the need for democratic legitimacy within the EU—would provoke even more resentment of the European project.
Cameron said the selection of Juncker was "a bad day for Europe" because it deliberately ignored the "pro-reform message" sent by European voters in May. Cameron added that "this whole process has simply reinforced my conviction that Europe needs to change."
That sentiment was almost certainly reinforced on July 1, when Members of the European Parliament elected Martin Schulz, a German Socialist, for a second term as president of the European Parliament.
As part of a backroom deal to ensure that Schulz—who has long been suspected of political cronyism—would support Juncker as Commission president, Schulz was offered a pay and perks package worth over €265,000 ($365,000), more than half of which will be exempt from income tax.
"The re-election of Schulz via a secret ballot following a backroom stitch-up between the main center-right and center-left blocks epitomizes the EU's democratic flaws and exposes the hollow nature of the arguments in favor of spitzenkandidaten," Pawel Swidlicki, a research analyst at Open Europe, said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.
"Schulz is an aggressive proponent of increasing the power of the European Parliament and so will be a big obstacle to EU reform."
Indeed, Schulz can be expected to join forces with Juncker to prevent anti-EU parties from achieving any meaningful reforms to the European Union.
Juncker, a 59-year-old veteran of EU deal-making, has been an unabashed advocate for expanding the powers of the EU. Like Schulz, he will be unlikely to favor transferring any powers from Brussels back to EU member states. Nor has Juncker ever been an advocate for more democratic accountability within the EU.
Commenting on the introduction of the European single currency in 1999, Juncker said: "We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don't understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back."
Referring to the European Constitution in 2003, Juncker said: "The Convention has been touted as the great democracy-show. I have not seen a darker darkroom than the Convention."
Commenting on the 2005 French referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Juncker said: "If it's a Yes, we will say 'on we go,' and if it's a No we will say 'we continue.'" He also said: "Those countries that vote No must vote again... to obtain the right answer."
Referring to the popular opposition to the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, Juncker said: "I am astonished at those who are afraid of the people: one can always explain that what is in the interest of Europe is in the interests of our countries." He added: "Britain is different. Of course there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact?"
Commenting on EU monetary policy in 2011, Juncker said: "Monetary policy is a serious issue. We should discuss this in secret, in the Eurogroup [the main forum for managing the European single currency] ... I'm ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious ... I am for secret, dark debates."
Referring to the economic meltdown in Greece in 2011, Juncker said: "When it becomes serious, you have to lie."
Juncker's appointment as the supreme Eurocrat makes it all but certain that the European Union will seek to centralize even more power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.