How can Eurosceptics claim that Europe is undemocratic, and then block the people’s choice of the Commission president? By James Bartholomeusz
What is the point of an election if no one pays attention to the result? For all the faults of the system, it is axiomatic in a liberal democracy that the state honours those representatives mandated by the people at the ballot box. In usual – national – cases, the incumbent party must hand over the reins of powers if it has been deprived of a majority, however that majority is technically decided. David Cameron is certainly in agreement with such principles. So why is he opposed to the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission?
Let us be clear: the European Parliament elections constitute a legally-binding process, just like any national or subnational election. And, under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament has the right to recommend a candidate for the presidency of the Commission, arguably the most important position in the EU. The European parties agreed long before election week that the one winning the largest number of seats would recommend its own chosen candidate for the presidency. There was no confusion about that.
Granted, the Lisbon Treaty does not specify that the Parliament’s choice of candidate must become the Commission president, but it is rather odd for those who have recently been so vocal about the EU’s lack of democracy to now be obstructing the Union’s most democratic process.
Eurosceptics have been surprisingly wrong-footed in the aftermath of an election which, for them, was otherwise a significant triumph. Their campaign rhetoric relied on painting the EU as an undemocratic bureaucracy, and the Parliamentary elections as a mere sheen on the real, iron-fisted rule of the Commission. They must now square that stance with the prospect of real progressive reform in Europe; for the first time, the Commission president could be a democratically-elected representative of ordinary European voters. This would seem to weaken the claim that the EU is unfixable and must be done away with.
The inverse dimension of this is also fascinating, and equally problematic for the Eurosceptic. Opposition to Juncker’s accession comes not so much from the Commission, the maligned autocrats from Brussels, but members of the Council of Ministers, the supposedly legitimate leaders of national governments. We now witness the bizarre spectacle of David Cameron, self-proclaimed advocate of democratic right against EU authority, denouncing the chosen candidate of the European elections.
Opponents of Juncker claim that the low turnout for the elections, and the relatively few voters actually aware of who the presidential candidates were, negates his claim to the people’s mandate. Instead, the most democratic option is said to be the pre-Lisbon system, whereby Councillors and other figures, elected by their national constituencies and ostensibly representing their interests, hammer out a deal over who should be president behind closed doors. Yet it is fanciful to believe that this approach, carried out in the shadows beyond the critical scrutiny of the European public sphere, is really more democratic than Europeans choosing their own Commission president. Yes, the turnout at the elections should have been higher, and yes, more voters should have been aware of the candidates on offer, but that does not invalidate the outcome of the electoral process. It only suggests that we have further to go in building a stronger continental democracy.
The implication of these criticisms is that it is not primarily lack of democracy which motivates prominent Eurosceptics – if that were the only parameter, then how could Juncker’s accession be regarded as anything but welcome? I have suspected for a while that Cameron’s anti-Europeanism is born more of expedience than conviction, but the arguments of even ‘proper’ Eurosceptics are challenged by this election. The danger for them is that the EU is shown to be not irreparable; that, with democratic reform, it can be made to work and inspire its citizens to become Europeans as well as nationals. That idea is anathema to the more xenophobic Eurosceptics. A democratic Europe threatens to dissipate the wave of popular anger which has carried the Front National, UKIP and others this far.
Like the majority of European citizens, I did not vote for Juncker. I am not a supporter of the EPP (although, as a Brit, it is a refreshing change to see self-identified conservatives making the case for Europe). But this is not a party-political issue. This is about the ideal of democracy, and the democratic reform of the European Union. I would have thought, on this issue at least, I would have found myself on the same side as Cameron. Alas, not.
Image: ‘PM at European Council’ courtesy of Number 10 via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.
This article is part of the #respectmyvote campaign, which demands that the Council of Ministers honours the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission.