THE NEW EU, OR IS IT?

Looking back at the past year, there is little doubt that the EU has changed. There has been a redistribution of power and the complex array of different EU institutions are involved in a political contest. The outcome and the consequences of the contest will certainly produce a different kind of Union. The central question, however, is whether this reshaped EU will be able to respond to the twofold challenge that the integration process confronts – responsiveness to the citizens and ability to solve the multiple crises that the EU faces. If these questions receive inadequate or flawed answers, then the integration process itself will very likely slow down or stagnate or even begin to fragment.

This last proposition sounds over-dramatic on first reading, but it is not too far from the realities. Jean-Claude Juncker, in his introductory speech to the European Parliament (EP) as the new President of the Commission, made this amply clear by insisting that the EU was in the “last chance saloon”. By the same token, he recognised that the EU and particularly the Commission, were political bodies.

Both statements represent something new, conceivably radically so. The way in which the Commission has worked hitherto has been to claim that all it was doing was administering the terrain that the member states had empowered it to look after – the activities that are best, most effectively administered at the all-European level. But, and this is a seriously far-reaching disjunction, it has consistently denied that what it was doing was political.

To anyone trying to look at the integration process with a modicum of neutrality, this apolitical or non-political concept of integration was and is nonsense. The Commission has the right to initiate EU legislation and that right is quintessentially political. It may not be political in the party-political sense, but it self-evidently involves exercising power and only someone looking to veil that power would claim that there is nothing political involved. It goes without saying, or should, that the ability to exercise power while claiming that nothing of the kind was happening – just administration – is an ideal state of affairs for those in the driving seat, because that power is then not really accountable. And that non-accountable power contradicts the basic demands of democracy. This then is at the heart of the challenge.

This year’s European Parliamentary elections demonstrated just how intense the alienation of the voters, the citizens of Europe, from the EU has become. Many people will point at the low turn-out as the clearest indicator of this disenchantment, but to some extent that is a feature of most democratic systems these days. With the growing redistribution of power – to NGOs, to lobby groups and lobbyists, to the judiciary, to technocracy – most legislatures have seen a decline in voter participation. This is quite logical, when power is no longer overwhelmingly concentrated in parliament, voters will be less inclined to vote. The European Parliament is no exception. What is, in reality, the far greater challenge is the size of the vote for Eurosceptic, Europhobic or just absurdist parties – around a quarter of the vote. The outcome is a very different Parliament from its predecessor.

The process of redistributing power within the EU can be seen most visibly in the launching of the Spitzenkandidat institution. This requires a bit of explanation. The President of the Commission was previously nominated by the member states, in the form of the Council, in a strictly non-transparent way. The person just happened to emerge, though latterly it was accepted that he or she should have been a prime minister. Ten years ago, the then leader of the EPP announced that if the Council did not nominate someone from the political family with the largest number of MEPs, he would veto that nomination. What this meant was Parliament was demanding a say in the process. Note that legally this was a grey area, Parliament has to consent, but has no legal right to nominate.

The idea of the Spitzenkandidatis to get round the legal provision politically The main parliamentary groups – the EPP and the Socialists (the S&D) – agreed that they would put forward a lead candidate in the 2014 elections and agreed that the lead candidate that did best would be the new president of the Commission (the Liberals, ALDE, followed suit). It was quite likely that the S&D thought that they would win, but in the event the EPP emerged as the largest parliamentary group with Jean-Claude Juncker, elected at its Dublin Congress in March, as its candidate; a real election in itself, as Juncker had been challenged by the French Commissioner (Michel Barnier).

In retrospect, it looks as if the Council fell asleep at the wheel. The member states could easily have blocked this initiative if they had chosen to do so before the candidates had emerged. Once the campaign had started, it was too late – too late politically at any rate. German voters in particular made their feelings clear on this issue when it looked as if Angela Merkel might retract.

The significance of this manoeuvre was that Parliament had successfully gained possession of the nomination process and thereby made the Commission presidency both more political and more accountable to Parliament. Some dim- witted journalists called this a “power grab”, not understanding that an open process is necessarily more democratic than one taking place behind the scenes.

The enhancing of Parliament’s power did not stop there, however. It embraced the suitability or otherwise of the Commissioners as well, not just the President. This area had long been a contested issue. Parliament naturally wanted and wants full power to dismiss commissioners-designate, just like the US Congress. There is a bit of history here, which offers some insight into how the powers of the EP with respect to commissioners-designate have been enlarged, very clearly at the EP’s behest.

According to the legend, in 1995 when hearings were held for the first time, the then Danish commissioner, Ritt Bjerregaard is supposed to have said at her hearing, “This is not a real parliament, you know”. This would be inconceivable today. In 2004 the Hungarian candidate, László Kovács, was supposed to be given the energy portfolio, but – again, according to parliamentary legend – he could not tell the difference between a nuclear power station and a windmill. After furious lobbying from Budapest and elsewhere from the Socialists more widely, he was given another portfolio, tax and customs, close to a non-job. And Rocco Buttiglione from Italy was forced to withdraw after commenting at a press conference that, as a Catholic, he regarded homosexuality as a sin. Unwise. Off he went.

It is fair to say that with the 2014 hearings, Parliament now has the political, though again not the legal, power to send home a commissioner-designate that it does not like. The commissioners-designate are nominated by the member states, one each, but Parliament has now ensured that they will not just be nodded through. The Slovene nominee, Alenka Bratušek, performed so dismally at her hearing that she was declared unappointable. And home she went. Despite the precedents, Bratušek’s dismissal was of a different order. It followed as the direct result of what she said at the hearing (or rather failed to say). Following this, the EP attempted to extend its powers a bit further and actually to name its preferred Slovene commissioner-designate, the S&D MEP Tanja Fajon. This was firmly rejected by the Slovene government, insisting that it and it alone had the right to make such a nomination. Had it not done so, a precedent would have been set for the further erosion of one of the powers of the member states.

The Hungarian Commissioner-designate meanwhile, Tibor Navracsics, was obviously tarred by “guilt by association” as a former member of the Orbán government – seen by the European left as something close to the beast in the Book of Revelation (“a beast [did] rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns … he opened his mouth in blasphemy”) – but he scraped through, having been given the slightly idiosyncratic judgement of being appointable as commissioner, but not for the portfolio which he was supposed to handle. In the event, when it came to voting in the Commission as a whole, Navracsics was mentioned by both leftwing and rightwing speakers as a dubious character, but they were not going to vote against the entire Commission as such merely because Navracsics was there. True, his portfolio was trimmed a little. The Greens, the far-left and the far-right voted no to the Commission.

What is noteworthy here is that formally, legally, the EP’s power has been to dismiss the entire commission, not pick off individual designates. This is the nuclear option, and it did befall the Santer Commission in 1999, which was forced to resign on charges of corruption. But rejecting the Juncker Commission would have had far-reaching consequences. Quite possibly Juncker would have thrown in the towel, the right of nominating the Commission President would have been reclaimed by Council and the EP would have lost what it had gained by introducing the Spitzenkandidat gambit. In addition, there was a degree of urgency, given the economic crisis, the future of the euro, the Ukraine crisis and Russia, energy, the terrible mess in the Middle East and the negotiations with the US over the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). If the EP had held up the taking of office of the new Commission by some months, then it would have been held responsible, notably by the media, the member states and a section of the voters.

Overall though, Parliament has come out of this process fairly successfully, but that does simultaneously raise the question alluded to earlier, its composition, and whether the new pattern will do much to strengthen the legitimacy of the EU as a whole. The hard reality is that there are now sizeable forces on both the far-left and the far-right of Parliament. These either oppose integration in its entirety, or seek to claw back powers transferred to Brussels over the years or to transform the EU into an altogether different kind of Europe, primarily by cutting down on the Commission’s power of regulation. There are some who would like to change the EU into a free trade zone, others who would like the European Parliament to disappear altogether or simply dislike Brussels and all its works. The twenty-five per cent or so support that the anti-Europeans do enjoy, however, means that they must be taken seriously as a political force.

In this connection, dismissing these forces as “populists” of the left and the right does nothing to help, on the contrary, it makes it harder to understand what their strength is based on and, for that matter, makes it more likely that they will increase their support. In fairly elementary terms, these new political forces draw their support from the losers of globalisation (and they are many), from the failure of the market to empower them (despite the protagonists of the market insisting they will be empowered), from the disdain with which they are treated by the liberal elites (which erodes their sense of citizenship), from the increased inequalities (economic, non-economic), and, possibly as the key concrete issue, their hostility to immigration, whether that is intra-European migration or extra-European. The economic arguments, that immigrants are of benefit to the economy, do not hold water in the eyes of those who have to deal with the cultural consequences of large numbers of migrants at the everyday level.

Conceivably we are dealing here with a deeper historical process, to the effect that the party-political divisions based on left and right are crumbling at the edges, that new political movements are moving into the overall political field and the existing occupants manifestly dislike this. When combined with the monopoly claim by the centre-left that the only legitimate form of democracy is “liberal democracy”, then a sizeable and probably growing number of citizens feel that they are in effect excluded from their civic rights, whatever the liberals may say to the contrary. Note that this monopoly claim is relatively new, and it necessarily excludes Christian Democracy, Social Democracy and Conservatism as legitimate democratic actors.

The implication is that these new political movements are here to stay and, equally, that their strength in the European Parliament is a harbinger of their likely impact in the member states. When seen from this perspective, the economic crisis of 2008 and thereafter was the trigger that produced a series of unintended consequences, like the mounting popular disaffection. What this has meant for the EP is that if the EU is to work at all, if the potential blocking veto by the Eurosceptics is to be evaded, then the largest Euro-friendly parties must come to terms with one another. Crucially, they must accept that there is such a thing as a European interest, as well as that of the member states and the citizens, and that when needs must Europe can transcend party politics.

The difficulty is severalfold. The left expected to win the 2014 EP elections and is sore that the EPP came on top, albeit with a seriously reduced representation (down from around 285 to 220 out of 751, the figures tend to be a bit fluid), while the S&D managed only about 195, with the Liberals having fewer than 60 MEPs (down from around 85, with heavy losses in Germany and the UK), and are smaller than the Conservatives (the ECR). Then, in the previous parliaments, a de facto leftwing alliance came into being (S&D, Liberals, Greens, far-left), which notched up a series of successes (voting the Tavares report through, the one that condemned Hungary, was only one of many). For the S&D now to regard the EPP as its primary partner is clearly hard work. Some of the S&D abstained, rather than vote for the new Commission, evidently disliking some of its members.

Note that this informal alliance – coalition is too strong a word – is difficult for some in the EPP to swallow too. The alliance is, indeed, somewhat fragile and the coming years will show whether or not it is sustainable. The German Grand Coalition model does not work with the same readiness elsewhere.

If not, then there will be very serious problems for the EU. And that doesn’t just apply to the EPP. Parliament as a whole, having played a central role in the hearings of the Commissioners, must now be on its toes for the next five years to see to it that the Commission does, in fact, work as it has promised, that it does cut back on regulation for regulation’s sake, that it is far more flexible than hitherto and open towards  citizens. There are key questions of transparency and accountability on the agenda.

At the same time, Juncker has not made this any easier. He has radically restructured the portfolios allocated to the Commissioners in the name of greater effectiveness and he has brought in a cluster system, one that everyone is denying actually is a cluster. In effect, Commission vice-presidents will now have a clear scrutiny or supervisory role over the work of other Commissioners. Does this mean Grade 1 and Grade 2 Commissioners? No one knows. Equally, how the EP will track these new Commission portfolios is similarly unclear. By radically rearranging the portfolios, Juncker has created overlaps between different parliamentary committees, thereby making the EP’s scrutiny role much more difficult. Several commissioners-designate were heard by three parliamentary committees and one was heard by four. When taxed with the consequences of his restructuring of the portfolios, Juncker replied that that was Parliament’s problem. Well, yes, up to a point, Lord Copper.

More broadly, the Commission must also adjust itself to confront the challenge of disenchantment. That appears to be the message sent forth by Juncker and equally by the newly instituted first Vice-President, Frans Timmermans (from the Netherlands). They both recognise that the political, not the administrative, quality and activities of the Commission must be at the forefront over the next five years. What this will mean in practice is hard to define. The new Commissioners will have their work cut out to change the corporate culture of the Commission’s permanent staff, who must now accept and understand that they are in the politics business, meaning that they – the Commissioners certainly – must actively engage with the citizens in whatever forms and forums are available. Failure to do so will question the very existence of the integration process in which the Commission plays a central role. That is what Juncker meant when he spoke of the EU being in the “last chance saloon”.

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