The Real European Election Has Just Begun

"The European Parliament has, and not for the first time, overstepped and overreached." 

The narrative following the recent EU parliamentary election—the largest supranational democratic exercise in history—was mostly all doom and gloom. With anti-EU parties winning in France and the UK, the story has been one of alarm and rebuke for the pro-European center right/left consensus. More detached (or astute) observers would, however, be right in questioning whether this is the real story. After all, the British UKIP and the French National Front only make up about 6 percent of the newly elected Parliament. Their victories mean far more in London and Paris than they do in Brussels. The vast majority of the new Parliament remains firmly prointegrationist, and will no doubt carry on that agenda, for better or worse. No, the real story lies elsewhere and is just beginning to unfold in Brussels, Berlin and London. The real battle over EU democracy has just begun.

The election, with its low turnout, lackluster personalities and predictable outcome (a broad majority for the status quo, with bipartisanship tendencies that would scarcely be believed by Washington insiders) merely set the stage for the real European election: the election of the European Commission President and his/her cabinet. For the first time, this crucial decision will pit the newly elected Parliament against the governments of the member states.

This process is key because in the EU, it is the Commission that writes and proposes legislation and even oversees its implementation, acting as a powerful legislator-executor. The Parliament, which coapproves the laws with the Council, passed 93 percent of all legislation submitted to it by the Commission in the last five years. The choice of Commission President will, therefore, be far more important than the European Parliament election, not just for the EU agenda and policy over the next five years, but for the nature and future of the European project itself.

So why is this time so different? In the past, the Council, composed of government representatives, selected the Commission President. The EU recently changed its rules, however, and now the Council has to “take into account” the outcome of the European Parliament election when making their choice, and the Commission President must win the confidence of Parliament. The Parliament seized on this new rule and each of the major parties put forward a candidate for Commission President, even pitting them against each other in televised debates, avidly watched by less than 1 percent of Europeans.

The ballot ink had barely dried in Italy (the last state to vote) when the winning party in the Parliament election, the center-right European People’s Party, put its lead candidate Jean Claude Juncker forward for the European Commission Presidency. The opening salvo against him was fired days later, when the UK’s David Cameron made clear that a staunch integrationist was an unacceptable choice, and even Angela Merkel refused to endorse Juncker. What followed was a firestorm of negative press against Merkel in Germany, and a remarkably swift reversal on her part, with a firm endorsement of Juncker. The UK dug in and was joined to varying degrees by France, Italy, Sweden and Hungary. The battle lines were drawn up, and after Juncker, in a defiant interview in the German Bild am Sonntag, publically accused the UK of blackmailing Europe, the stage was set for a showdown.

Not only is this new contest for power more important than whether the barely distinguishable center-right or center-left parties eked out a narrow plurality in the European Parliament, the process, for once, may be more critical than the outcome. The struggle between the Parliament (with its mandate from the people) and the Council (representing the governments of the member states) goes to the core of the idea of supranational democracy. Who should prevail in choosing—the representatives of the people in parliament, or the governments of the states? Sidestepping the fact that the Parliament is stretching the legal language of the rules to a breaking point, their right to confirm the nominee makes them a legitimate player in the game.

Over the next month or so, alliances will shift, states will either be for Juncker or against him, and new names will be thrown into the mix. In the end, though, the prevailing name may be overshadowed by the significance of which institution comes out on top. If the Parliament prevails, it will be a watershed moment in supranational history, and one that will be closely watched by every nascent regional integration organization in the world, from UNASUR in South America to the African Union, and perhaps even the newest kid on the bloc, Putin’s Eurasian Union.