The difficult process of choosing the new president of the European Commission, undertaken at today’s meeting of the European Council, reveals a split emerging throughout Europe. This fissure does not run between left and right or north and south, nor does it divide old and new Europe.
Instead, this rift runs between two visions of the future nature of European democracy. One side believes in a democratic Europe in which citizens’ votes will carry more weight in the not too distant future, with elections — along with a certain amount of influence from national capitals — determining leaders and policies. The argument that the integration of markets and the surrender of national currencies have created European public goods that can only be governed efficiently and democratically if joint decisions are taken at the European level has gained considerable weight on this side of the debate. The other side contends that the European Union’s legitimacy is rooted solely in nation states, and derives primarily from national leaders. It holds that parliamentary control should flow through national parliaments or parliamentarians rather than the European Parliament itself. Its supporters believe that the EU can be run by negotiating compromise among nationally predefined policy positions.
Britain’s Conservatives have come out so strongly against Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy for Commission president because they fear that nominating the candidate of the party that fared the best in the recent election will profoundly change the European system. Within London’s European policy community these days, one gets the impression that the British feel they are fighting a battle for survival against a European octopus, one whose most dangerous arms — the supranational European Commission and the European Parliament — are about to strangle Downing Street and Westminster in one go.
While this picture is of course exaggerated, the British analysis of the political dynamic is, as is so often the case, spot on and well ahead of the continental curve. The election of a "Spitzenkandidat" to the Commission presidency would make the European Commission more political — and potentially more powerful. New questions about the European Commission’s role may thus emerge — whether some of its technocratic competencies should be transferred to a more appropriate entity, for instance.
Of course, the election of the new president will likely result in an attempt by the European Council to tightly control the work program of the next Commission. But the Commission and the European Parliament can — and probably will — emerge as stronger political players on the European scene. Political parties will take note, and in the next round of European elections more attention will be paid to the "Spitzenkandidaten," who may even figure on European ballots — and bring innovative impetus into the EU system. Thus the struggle over the new European Commission president is one about the democratic future of the EU. It is not about a particular political party or a certain candidate standing for a specific position. It is a formative moment for the EU’s polity.
This is a battle that most concerns those citizens who share a European currency and hence live in a unified European economy. The sovereign debt and banking crises have revealed how interdependent member states have become — economically, financially, and politically. A number of publics now realize how national governments, to a substantial degree, have lost the ability to steer what many still call their "national" economies and ensure social stability within their countries. The remedies found to calm the sovereign debt and banking crises demonstrate that joint instruments are needed to deal with the shared risks the euro area is facing today, and now that they are in place the political and intellectual debate has turned from financial questions to the deep political challenges we are now facing — namely how to underpin the adventurous governance set-up of the euro area in a more democratic fashion. There is no unanimous answer to the "how" yet, but there is a clear need for a debate. And the battle over Juncker shows how real it all has become.
The U.K., along with Sweden and Denmark, is naturally removed from this core European experience. The significance of the current discussion is magnified by the fact that the next set of problems the EU will have to tackle is, finally, on the table : the political deepening of Europe’s core and the redefinition of relationships with those who do not want to be part of it, now or in the near future.
The British may be right here as well when Cameron claims that Juncker may drive the U.K. out of the EU. In the interest of all parties, this separation would most probably not be as black and white as what Downing Street currently describes, but rather only a partial one. But it would be part of a necessary, albeit challenging, process of clarification that the EU now needs to face, as bridging the two visions of the future of European democracy becomes increasingly difficult.