Juncker's election 'crucial step' towards United States of Europe
The election of Jean-Claude Junker as commission president is 'huge step forward' for European democracy, says Pietro De Matteis.
Following the European council decision on 27 June to nominate Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European commission president in light of the outcome of the European elections, it is now up to the second EU legislative chamber, the European parliament, to confirm his nomination on 16 July. As the main groups in the European parliament have openly backed Juncker as the winner of the European elections, this should come without delay.
In this light, the election of the former Luxembourg prime minister will mark a crucial step towards the United States of Europe. But this is not because he is an 'arch-federalist', as depicted by the British press. He confirmed that he is not so in an interview to BBC Radio 4 on 30 June and he appears not to be a federalist when compared with other European commission presidential candidates such as Guy Verhofstadt. So how is Juncker's election contributing to the creation of a federal Europe? The reply is threefold: it brought the EU more accountability and more transparency and strengthened the European public sphere.
Before expanding on those three elements it is worth clarifying what we mean by 'federalism'. Far from what Eurosceptics say, federalism translates into 'more power to the people'. At a time when problems are more and more regional or global, we need regional and global solutions. Through federalism we can ensure that those decisions are taken in the most effective way and as close to the citizens as possible. This gives more voice to the people and ensures greater accountability.
"These European elections constitute a crucial milestone in the evolution of the European Union towards a federation because they built a link between the EU institutions and the people"
It is often said that the EU is affected by a democratic legitimacy gap. Regardless of whether this is justified or not in light of the treaties, this is certainly what is felt by the people who consider themselves as having little or no influence on what is decided in Brussels. In this respect, these European elections constitute a crucial milestone in the evolution of the European Union towards a federation because they built a link between the EU institutions and the people. In the past, the president of the commission was solely appointed by the council - and was therefore accountable only to the heads of state. For the first time in history, the president of the European commission has been made accountable also to the people through his election.
In fact, thanks to the 'Spitzenkandidaten' process, each major European political party put forward a candidate for the post of European commission president, and the party who obtained the most votes in the European elections will see his candidate becoming the next president. This means that, de facto, Jean-Claude Juncker is the first elected president of the European commission. This constitutes a major power-shift from the heads of states in the council to the parliament and therefore to the people, who from now on will be able to decide who runs the EU executive. This constitutes a precedent that must not be underestimated and the people of Europe should defend this new prerogative which the European council may try to challenge.
Many have argued that when voting for the European elections many people were not aware that they were voting also for Schulz, Juncker, Verhostadt, Tsipras or Keller as commission presidents. Well, some did. Many candidates campaigned across Europe and took part in televised debates broadcasted Europe-wide. In Italy there were even electoral lists under the names of two of the presidential candidates: Tsipras for 'L'Altra Europa con Tsipras' and Verhofstadt for 'Scelta Europea con Verhofstadt'. Indeed, fewer British people had the same luxury to vote for their preferred European commission president, but this was a choice made by British politicians. In fact, the two parties largely voted by UK citizens, the Conservatives and UK Independence Party, are not part of any mainstream European political party and refused to put forward a candidate for the position of European commission president. In 2009 the Tories left the European People's Party to create a smaller group called the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. Nonetheless, we must stress that those parties that put forward a candidate for the position of president constitute almost 78 per cent of the elected members of the parliament.
"Now that the election of commission president is directly linked with the results of the European parliament elections, we could even imagine high profile personalities such as Matteo Renzi or Angela Merkel to run as candidates for the position of head of the European Union executive"
Certainly this process was not perfect, but we can be sure that next European elections will gather much more attention from national politicians and from the media. Now that the election of commission president is directly linked with the results of the European parliament elections, we could even imagine high profile personalities such as Matteo Renzi or Angela Merkel to run as candidates for the position of head of the European Union executive. This would not be unimaginable if we consider that already at these European elections two former prime ministers were competing - Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg and Guy Verhofstadt from Belgium.
The indirect election of commission president by the voters is not the only contribution of these European elections to a more democratic and federal Europe. The second crucial contribution is that for the first time the council voted by qualified majority to approve the next president, and only the UK and Hungary voted against Jean-Claude Juncker. A transparent vote for the nomination of the European commission president is an absolute novelty as in the past this decision had always been taken secretly behind closed doors. For this we have to thank the opposition by the UK prime minister David Cameron who wanted an open vote. Even though this was probably not his intention, by doing so he has contributed to the democratisation of the EU and, arguably, to further European integration.
The third and last contribution of these European elections towards a more democratic Europe is the strengthening of a European political public sphere. This was the first time that candidates campaigned across Europe, it was the first time that truly pan-European parties, such as the European Federalist Party, took part in elections in several European countries and it was the first time that European public opinion was mobilised to counter the attempted coup d’état against the European parliament and the voters which seemed to be in preparation after the informal European summit of 27 May. Back then, several heads of state including David Cameron, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and German chancellor Angela Merkel - with the tacit accord of several others including Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, were reticent to openly support Jean-Claude Juncker as the actual winner of the European elections, and therefore, as the legitimate candidate to seek a majority within the two EU legislative chambers.
"Ultimately this was not just a battle to support Juncker. This was a battle for democracy. And Europeans won it"
But European public opinion did not accept this blunt denial of democracy and pursued a battle for democracy supported by European intellectuals and several civil society organisations. The European Federalist Party played its part through the initiative 'respect our vote' which was run in partnership with other NGOs such as Project for Democratic Union, One Europe, JEF Belgium and JEF Brussels. Together we gathered the support of citizens from across Europe, all aiming to the further democratisation of the EU and to the respect of the outcome of the elections.
Ultimately this was not just a battle to support Juncker. This was a battle for democracy. And Europeans won it. From now on, the voice of Europeans will be stronger. Europeans will be able to decide who is at the helm of the executive of the European Union, and it will be up to us, as European voters, to ensure that the new European commission president is also accountable to the people. Of course, more needs to be done to make the EU completely democratic and better able to tackle today's challenges, but while this is a small step for Juncker, it is a huge step forward for European democracy.