The heads of state, key political actors and Brussels-watchers alike will tell anyone who cared enough to follow the European Union’s top jobs saga (that is, not the citizens of Europe). A pat on the back might casually follow. Upon the completion of another half-baked compromise, the Euro-bubble and national leaders (with few exceptions, such as Germany, where a governmental crisis is looming) will abandon the European capital and those of the Member States to descend to milder climates to brave the summer heatwave until they reconvene in September, an otherwise well-deserved holiday, by their own assessment.
However, all of the above, by way of self-congratulation, might be missing an important point or two. Many pages of analysis have already been written about the last fortnight’s developments, including the impact of the grand backroom deal upon the Spitzenkandidaten process or interinstitutional relations. There is an element that all but a handful of politicians and analysts have missed, though – very little, if any, of that matters to European citizens.
On the contrary, there are signs that what happened over the course of the last two weeks is only the beginning of a game-changing institutional paralysis, with increasingly slimmer chances of a way out that will be beneficial to all Europeans.
Analysts have expressed satisfaction that it only took a week longer for the heads of state to arrive at a compromise than in 2014. That is a fair point. But the efficiency or success of the institutional process should not be simply judged by virtue of the time it took for the European Council to reach an agreement. This process exhibited several weaknesses – or even a reorientation – that will impact the European Union and its citizens in the future.
As things stand now, the top four positions have gone or will go to Germany, Belgium, Italy and France, all Eurozone members. No Nordic or Eastern European leader can be found among them. Is this a sign of variable geometry applied by stealth? Does this imply the entrenchment of a refocus engineered by a latently nominal, ad hoc Franco-German axis on the Eurozone and one that could also mean that the interests of the non-members of the currency union will be sidelined or ignored?
Moreover, and contrary to the 2014 deal, last week’s arrangement is one of the lesser or inferior outcomes. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was the Spitzenkandidat of the largest party by the number of seats in the European Parliament and a long-serving head of state. European Council President Donald Tusk was the Prime-Minister of the bloc’s sixth largest country by population. The European Central Bank President Mario Draghi was a former central banker. Martin Schulz had been President of the European Parliament for two years when re-elected in 2014, and Antonio Tajani was a former European Commissioner.
Compare that to the current line-up: Ursula Von der Leyen, Germany’s Defence Minister and Commission President nominee was described as “our weakest minister” by Schulz. Charles Michel’s scored less than 8% in the most recent European elections. Christine Lagarde headed the International Monetary Fund but has no central bank experience. She is a lawyer by training and has been convicted of negligence by the French courts in a case involving state compensation to a private individual during her time as Finance Minister of France. David-Maria Sassoli was a little-known Vice-President of the institution he now leads. The jury is still out on them: they might as well perform efficiently and successfully.
However, what the process and outcome of this negotiation tells us is that, first, it was hard and costly to reach a compromise, given that those frontline candidates, including the Spitzenkandidaten, were sacrificed as key players took out potential nominees in a tit-for-tat game that led to the lowest common denominator that resembled a race to the bottom. Secondly, it was national interest first and then Eurozone interest second that prevailed, not the common good. And thirdly, and most alarmingly, there was no agreement on a vision or an agenda, but merely on names, with little indication of what those figures that will lead the European Union in the next five years stand for or represent.
If the characteristics of this negotiation – lowest common denominator, national interest followed by Eurozone interest, lack of a vision – will ensue when it comes to tackling the big issues – the key dossiers such as migration, trade, climate change and institutional reform – one can only imagine what will follow. From an institutional paralysis to minuscule action at best, to the detriment of all those European who expect solutions.
That will have an immense impact on the prospects of the European Union as a whole, leading to further disengagement, disapproval and eventually stronger support for Euroscepticism and the extremes, which will be registered at the next European polls in 2024, and probably much earlier in national capitals. If leaders had a hard time to decide on faces, what will happen when they will have to decide on policies with economic and social impact on the voters on which they depend nationally?
What the European leaders have done is kick down the can hard decisions to preserve an appearance of control and continuity. But isn’t it the time yet for a leading figure among the heads of state to outline a vision that will offer real solutions to real concerns and take the helm? What else has to happen for that to materialise before it is too late?
Some believe that the solution is a move to a qualified majority on key dossiers. This, in itself, is a realisation of failure given the prevalent EU fatigue. No new treaty, however brilliant, will get public support in all twenty-seven states, as it is required. That is a failure of the political establishment: there is no public trust or rapport with the voters anymore, let alone the capacity to explain and be believed. That limits the room for movement to the current treaty. Indeed, a qualified majority might be the only solution in those circumstances. But that will alienate many member states who will find themselves permanently outvoted. As a warning, the United Kingdom was the most outvoted member in the Council, including on the choice of Commission President last time around. What is the plan when it comes to making those members feel part of the future and who can carry it out?
A similar chaotic scene has also been emerging in the European Parliament. Think about the grand coalition – the European People’s Party, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens – that has taken on the role of running the place and keeping the extremes off executive positions. It has changed its mind or has broken down three times already. There was an agreement immediately after the European elections in support of the Spitzenkandidaten process, but the Liberals abstained. Then two weeks ago, Renew Europe and the Social-Democrats – who had previously come out in support of the Spitzenkandidat process – said they will not support Manfred Weber’s candidacy. That was followed up last week when the Greens and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D) ran different candidates for the presidency of the institution. Some of the European People’s Party’s (EPP) members even showed a preference for the European Conservatives and Reformists candidate, despite the party’s whip.
What is to follow? How will legislation on key matters be adopted? Moreover, will the European Parliament stop complaining about alleged patronising by the Council? it is its own internal power games that diminish its power in the inter-institutional strife.
To some extent, the same applies to the parties, with the EPP in mind in particular: the fact that the party’s only heavyweight, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, initially bypassed the party’s choice only to later agree to the instalment of an EPP moderate, indicates that the party immensely erred in its choice of a conservative for Spitzenkandidat in their congress last November. An EPP moderate candidate ran in that congress – Alexander Stubb. That would have spared everybody a lot of trouble and he would have probably been crowned Commission President as Spitzenkandidat. But the party was out of tune with the rest of European leaders and with its own de facto leader, Chancellor Merkel.
The political leadership seems to be continuing on the same pattern – buying time, postponing difficult decisions, implementing any change by stealth, failing to listen or explain what is happening to the voters or deliver real solutions to the big issues that matter. Preserving the status quo and its benefits for the establishment will not carry the Union and its citizens forward.
In a letter to his sister, Kathleen Kennedy, dated 10 March 1942, a young John Kennedy wrote of England, “When a nation finally reaches the point that its primary aim is to preserve the status quo, it’s approaching old age. When it reaches the point where it is willing to sacrifice a part of the status quo to keep the rest, it’s gone beyond being old, it’s dying.” Now simply just substitute “European Union” or, better, “Europe’s political establishment” for “nation.”