European Council member states voted 26-2 for Jean-Claude Juncker to serve as the next President of the Commission on 26 June. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban cast the two opposing votes, albeit for very different reasons. But before getting into their respective motives, it is useful to shed some light on what the presidential role entails.
The President of the European Commission
The European Commission (EC) represents the “executive” branch of the European Union. In addition to drafting legislation, the EC is responsible for ensuring that, once adopted by the European Parliament, its laws are correctly enforced throughout the EU. Unlike the European Council (whose members are EU premiers), the Council of the European Union (comprised of EU member-state ministers) and the European Parliament (whose MEPs are elected by EU citizens), the European Commission is the only body whose job it is to represent the interests of the EU as a whole.
The Commission, which functions in the same way as a government cabinet, consists of 28 commissioners, one per member state. The President of the Commission is responsible for assigning portfolios, which determine the commissioners’ powers.
How is the President of the European Commission nominated?
The procedure for nominating the President of the Commission is laid down in the Treaty on European Union, Article 17.7:
Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.
Furthermore, Declaration 11 of the Treaty states:
The European Parliament and the European Council are jointly responsible for the smooth running of the process leading to the election of the President of the European Commission. Prior to the decision of the European Council, representatives of the European Parliament and of the European Council will thus conduct the necessary consultations in the framework deemed the most appropriate.
In short, the European Council nominates a candidate for EC president which, in turn, is either approved or rejected by the European Parliament by putting it to a vote. If the nominee fails to obtain a simple majority of votes in the EP, then the EC must propose another candidate and the entire process is repeated.
The powers of the Commission
The Commission is without doubt the most powerful body within the EU. The Commission can take action against any member state for failing to incorporate EU directives into its national law or for breaching EU Treaty provisions, regulations or directives. The Commission must also ensure fair conditions of competition between EU businesses.
How is the election of the President of the European Commission different from the election of the other 27 Commissioners?
Once the president has been elected by the EP, each member state nominates their own commissioner in consultation with the EC president. Once the commissioners have been nominated and the various portfolios tentatively assigned, the whole team is presented to the European Parliament for approval. This process involves hearings in the European Parliament, and may also involve some reshuffling with regard either to the commissioners themselves or the proposed portfolios.
Once the new Commission has been formally approved by the European Parliament, it is officially seated by the European Council.
Why the Council recommended Juncker to the EP
The nomination of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, an EU federalist who advocates broadening the EU’s rule and strengthening its power, is seen as a response to challenges posed by the situation in Ukraine and a rise in anti-Brussels sentiment throughout the EU as member states struggle to recover from the world financial crisis of 2008. It also reflects a general desire to bolster EU energy security, as well as harmonize the fiscal and financial policies of member states. If approved by the European Parliament, Juncker will replace outgoing EC President Jose Manuel Barroso, a fellow European People’s Party member.
Why British Prime Minister David Cameron opposed Juncker’s nomination
Prime Minister David Cameron challenged Juncker’s nomination on grounds that his UK governing Conservative Party does not favour a “closer EU”.
In the weeks leading up to the June 26-27 European Council meeting, Cameron voiced his growing dissatisfaction with the increasingly centralized powers of the European Union in general and the European Commission in particular. A member of the EP’s European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), Cameron believes member states should retain a large degree of national sovereignty to address issues over which the EU generally seeks to establish its own legal jurisdiction. Cameron’s own party did not nominate a candidate for EC president because it does not believe the EC needs a president.
European conservatives such as Cameron are concerned about the mounting financial burden carried by the more developed northern and western European countries, as opposed to less developed southern and eastern EU member states (such as Hungary) that tend to be net recipients of EU development funds. He asks why UK taxpayers should have to pay for the poor policies of other countries.
When the UK threatens to leave the EU, it is taken seriously given the size of its economy and London and Edinburgh’s status as important centers of global finance. While it is not known whether the UK is capable of going it alone, the matter is certainly open to debate.
With regard to the European Council’s nominee for EC president, Cameroon found himself decidedly in the minority. The fact that he was joined by Hungary’s Orban was of little consolation.
Why Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban opposed Juncker’s nomination
By contrast, Orban’s opposition to Juncker’s nomination was purely political.
Orban’s populist, “unorthodox” policies have contravened EU law and made Hungary the subject of relentless criticism. Since coming to power in 2010, the Fidesz-KDNP government has adopted a new constitution (since modified five times) and adopted a slew of laws, a number of which have been challenged and even struck down by the EU Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,
The 2013 Tavares Report adopted by the European Parliament cited a long list of alleged abuses, such as encroaching on the independence of the judiciary by lowering the compulsory retirement age, the adoption of a draconian media law and the establishment of extra-governmental bodies, packed with Fidesz appointees, to oversee the judiciary and media.
Although the EC declined to follow through on the report’s recommendation that Hungary be effectively quarantined through the establishment of a proposed “monitoring mechanism”, Hungary’s relationship with the EC continues to be strained.
Many believe outgoing Commission President Barroso did not do enough to bring Hungary back into the fold.
Given the events unfolding in neighboring Ukraine (and the geopolitical stakes), the need for fiscal discipline in EU member states in the wake of the financial crisis, the need for a harmonized and equitable European Union and Juncker’s federalist approach to governing the EU, Orban is worried that the Commission will take a stronger stand against Hungary under Juncker than under his predecessor.
As Hungary is a net beneficiary of EU structural funds, today’s news that it will again be put under an excessive deficit procedure next year raises genuine fears that the development funds may now be suspended indefinitely.