Jean-Claude Juncker’s twitter/facebook campaign to be appointed as the next European commission uses the hashtag ‘respectmyvote’ as part of a concerted political campaign to be the next president of the European commission, writes Tim McNamara.
Yet there are serious constitutional questions to be addressed if the results of the 2014 European parliament elections are to be distilled simply into votes for who will lead the commission for the next five years.
In other words: can the outcome of the election be read as giving a clear democratic mandate to Juncker? Can the votes cast in the election be interpreted as being primarily a vote for who should be the next commission president? If this is the case, does it not call into question the legitimacy of the parliament itself if the election of MEPs was a secondary concern of voters? Did the process of Spitzencandidaten undermine voter choice and is it an attempt to subvert the European Council’s primacy in deciding who will be the next president of the commission?
This article is not intended to call into question whether Mr Juncker would be a suitable president of the commission. It merely attempts to examine whether the new process at arriving at a suitable nomination for president has a clear democratic legitimacy. Although the Lisbon treaty is somewhat vague about the process, it is clear that the European council (made up of the political leaders of the 28 EU member states) has to ‘take note’ of the outcome of the parliament’s election. It is also a necessity that the next president must be approved by an absolute majority of MEPs (at least 376).
Yet, what do the election results tell us? Firstly, even if it is accepted that voters were primarily voting to elect a commission president, no candidate won a clear majority of the votes. In fact Mr Juncker’s party, the European peoples party (EPP) only won 29.4% of the votes cast. That could be read as 70% of those who voted were not supportive of the Juncker candidacy.
Juncker’s main rival, Martin Schulz (Socialists and Democrats – S&D) won 25.4; just one quarter of the votes were for the S&D. The third largest group in the European parliament, led by Guy Verhofstadt, won just 7.9%.
Consequently, Juncker’s campaign is relying on a ‘first past the post’ analysis of the election results. This is a dubious interpretation, not even the British who use a first past the post system of choosing their MPs in a general election use such a system in European parliament elections. Since member states use electoral systems that are variants of proportional representation, it can be legitimately claimed that the 29.4% achieved by Juncker’s EPP is the sum of the support for him by voters.
What has bolstered Juncker’s claims is the decision by most of the Parliament’s political groups to nominally support whichever candidate’s party group won the most votes. Therefore, S&D are theoretically bound to support Juncker in the secret ballot of MEPs on 7 July. In other words the process is based on pre-election caucusing and post-election deal-making by the political groups. Yet, none of the groups can hold the line in a secret ballot.
The UK Labour party (S&D) have already indicated that its 20 MEPs will not support a Juncker candidacy. Renzi’s Democratic party (also S&D) in Italy with 31 MEPs cannot be relied upon to support Juncker either. Others will undoubtedly follow suit and even his support in the EPP is not 100%.
A secondary, but important, consideration to take into account is whether the electoral contest between Juncker and Schulz had particular resonance in member states. Whilst the debates between the candidates garnered some coverage in some member states (mostly Germany and France), it is highly unlikely that voters switched their votes because of individual performances in the televised debates. In many other member states, the debates went unnoticed by many. In fact, a very large majority of voters did not even recognise the Spitzencandidaten even when prompted.
The core issue is that whether a vote in a European parliament election can give both legitimacy to the parliament itself and at the same time be interpreted as favouring one candidate for commission present over another. It is extremely doubtful that one can argue for interpreting most votes in the election as being for one Spitzencandidaten or another.
Unless voters are give two choices (one for their MEP and a second one for their choice commission president) in future european elections it cannot be the case that the votes in this year’s election can be expected to give a sense of entitlement to one candidate for president over another.
It is a primary tenet of parliamentary democracy that majority decisions (especially absolute majorities) of a parliament have democratic legitimacy. If Juncker wins an absolute majority then he has a strong case to be appointed president. However, relying on claiming that 100% of 29.4% of the vote was for him does not deserve to garner respect to his campaign. Unless Juncker’s supporters can produce hard psephological evidence to the contrary then respect will be absent.
There is a further formidable hurdle to surmount. The European union is not a parliamentary democracy where parliament is sovereign. The European Council can still be defined as the primary law-making body in the EU and as long as it has ‘taken note of the results’ it has abided by EU law. However, the parliament still has to approve any nomination by the Council, it can be foreseen that there will be a lack of respect between the two most important EU institutions over who will be appointed as president of the union’s much weaker third leg.
All of the above should not be interpreted that Juncker’s candidacy is illegitimate. On the contrary – at least he put himself forward during the election campaign and participated in the debates. If the Council were to nominate another person as a lead candidate, it would only be fair if such a candidate were to appear before parliament to take part in a series of debates with Juncker on the floor of parliament.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.