Britain and Europe still can’t save their marriage

At the European Parliament’s behest, and over the objections of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, the European Union’s governments have proposed Jean-Claude Juncker – a candidate national leaders don’t much admire, who stands for the kind of EU that a growing number of citizens don’t want – as next head of the European Commission.

The parliament has scored a notable victory – one that it may come to regret.

When it votes later this month to elect its own nominee, the parliament will be putting a “federalist” – meaning a supporter of more powerful EU bodies – in charge of the EU’s already strong executive branch. In addition, it will affirm an interpretation of the EU’s constitution that increases its own weight in the EU’s system of government.

In a previous column, I said that the parliament seemed likely to get its way on Juncker even though the EU’s treaties gave it only an advisory role. This was incorrect, as one reader pointed out. Under the current rules, national governments propose a candidate, taking elections to the EU parliament into account. The parliament then votes, and if the nominee fails to get majority support, governments must put forward another. Under the treaty, the parliament not only advises, but it also has a veto.

This arrangement can be understood in two ways. According to one view, national governments nominate and the parliament decides whether to confirm – much as a U.S. president nominates top officials and the Senate says yes or no. According to the other view, national governments are essentially bystanders. The parliament chooses, and governments facilitate.

One rule, two vastly different interpretations. The parliament asserted the second when it told governments whom to present for its approval, and the governments have just endorsed that understanding. The head of the commission is no longer a bureaucrat chosen by consensus of elected national leaders. Henceforth the job is expressly political, and incumbents will claim a democratic mandate – one that most of Europe’s voters didn’t know they were granting.

Perhaps you’re wondering, how can a mandate that voters don’t know they’re granting be a mandate? That kind of question comes up a lot in the EU. The Financial Times rightly calls it “a historic shift of power.” It’s a big step from a Europe of nation-states to a European state. Why then might the winner come to regret it? Because it’s such a compelling instance of the pathology that could split the union apart.

Lees dit artikel van Clive Crook verder op Bloomberg