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What does the election of Jean-Claude Juncker actually mean for Europe?

Oh hi. EPA/Patrick Seeger

After much controvery and some bitterness over his appointment, the confirmation of Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment to the presidency of the European Commission makes him one of the most influential individuals in Brussels, heading up the European Union’s civil service and gatekeeper to the legislative process. But who is Juncker, and why has there been so much debate about his selection?

In many ways, Juncker epitomises the way much of European politics works, both nationally and internationally. In his native Luxembourg, he was finance minister for the 20 years up to 2009, a job that overlapped with being prime minister between 1995 and 2013, as well as president of the Eurogroup from 2005 until last year.

On the face of it, this might say more about Luxembourg than Juncker – but it still represents a considerable achievement: balancing a multi-party coalition at home and the demands of complex European-level negotiations abroad.

In this, Juncker highlights not only the deep linkage between national and European politics, but also the weight of his personal presence in the EU: this is not some ingenue, but a man with connections across the continent and a personal experience with deep roots the pre-Maastricht era.

This experience has clearly left its mark on the man: he has a reputation as someone who works towards what is possible, rather than for some ideological holy grail. That faith in compromise and negotiation has sometimes manifested as a fondness for back-room deals in smoke-filled rooms, but in general Juncker’s priority has always been to make sure everyone somehow gets something – or at least saves face.

This, after all, was the man who put together the Stability and Growth Pact in the late 1990s, the treaty which provided cover for the launch of the Euro.

British problems

All of which raises the question of why the British government expended so much political capital on trying to block him over the past couple of months. The reasons why it took that gamble are threefold.

Juncker comes across as an old-school federalist, primarily because of his “insider” position. For the British media, and some British politicians, that is tantamount to wanting a European state; even though he has repeatedly expressed his opposition to such a thing. A moment’s glance at Luxembourg would show that such an agenda is about as common there as it is in the UK.

Juncker’s personality has also been held against him. A well-known drinker and smoker, assorted British media outlets had a field day painting a picture of him as the embodiment of Brussels’s worst qualities. That tarring-and-feathering didn’t reveal anything that wasn’t already known, but it made for more salacious copy than the results of the European elections.

And those elections were the real reason behind the livid British opposition. Juncker is becoming Commission President not because of a back-room deal, but because he was the lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat, to use our latest German loan-word) of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the elections.

In the run-up to the elections, the centrist party groups in the European Parliament decided that they would make use of the wording of the treaties to put forward Spitzenkandidaten, to help give a face to the elections and so stimulate engagement and turnout. National parties were rather ambivalent about it all, but let the European groups press on.

Five of the groups ultimately choose individuals to put forward, and by the time anyone in a national capital had really thought through the process, it was too late to do anything to block any of them – hence the focus on the post-election period.

Juncker lucked out, in that the EPP had not been expected to emerge as the largest group. The weakness of the French socialists meant that the centre-left S&D fell short, leaving their man - another EU insider, Martin Schulz - to have to return to his old job as Parliament President.

In all of this, the parliament has played a blinder, getting a viable majority behind Juncker as the only person that they would approve for the commission job and effectively leaving the member states no option. For the British government, in particular, this sets a very big precedent at a time when they could be doing with an EU that shows some sign being responsive to their interests in the run-up to a renegotiation and referendum.

What next?

If Juncker’s election was already a done deal - other member states might not care much for him, but they had no good alternative - then does it actually matter? The short answer would have to be no, not particularly.

The job of commission president is an odd one. While it offers a bully pulpit, its powers are also rather heavily circumscribed; the Lisbon treaty does give the president the ability to shape and re-shape his team of commissioners, but he cannot force through decisions against their will. Likewise, while the commission can propose legislation, it cannot decide it – that falls to the council of ministers and the European parliament.

In short, the commission is on a rather short leash, something that has been reflected in the run of rather anodyne predecessors to Juncker’s post: not since Jacques Delors has there been a strong personality running the Berlaymont.

But still, the president does get to set the tone, and Juncker’s organic link back to the European parliament will only enhance that. And this brings us back to where we began: Juncker’s lack of a strong ideology.

In this respect, he is actually as good a president as any from a British point of view. Unlike Schulz or Guy Verhofstadt (the Liberal candidate), he is not a deeply committed federalist. Certainly, his political sensibilities seem to be better attuned than those of his immediate predecessor, Jose Manuel Barroso.

The EU remains in a difficult position. The Eurozone economy still needs major attention, as does the development of a more coherent external European presence in the world. To address these areas, Juncker will need to have a strong team in the commission and the support of the member states, not to mention a clear plan that he can work to.

Much of that is not in his hands. When he does take office, we must remember that the management of the European Union is not the responsibility of any one person. As Juncker’s rival, David Cameron, might say: we’re all in this together.

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