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Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Opinion Jean-Claude who? Juncker and the the turf war gripping Europe

The former prime minister of Luxembourg is part of a developing crisis that threatens to be one of the greatest faced by the European Union.

JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER is the man who thinks he should be the next president of the European Commission because he won an election that never existed. The former prime minister of Luxembourg is part of a developing crisis that threatens to be one of the greatest faced by the European Union.

Juncker was the European People’s Party ‘candidate’ for president of the European Commission. The EPP, which is Fine Gael’s party in the European Parliament, claimed victory in the European elections because they returned the most MEPs. Juncker claims this means he should be president. But who decided to give their number one to Mairead McGuinness or Brian Hayes because Juncker would do a great job as president?

Usually the job of commission president (now José Manuel Barroso, in case you’re interested) is chosen by the European Council, or the presidents and prime ministers of Europe. In the past they got together around the dinner table and decided that so-and-so was available and a decent fit. But the Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament a say in the choice. The details were left vague because they couldn’t be agreed upon. The presidents and prime ministers thought they would proceed as usual and the parliament would consent.

Juncker unveiled in a haze of ambivalent fanfare

But last year the parliament’s political parties decided they would nominate candidates to lead their European election campaigns. The EPP nominated Juncker (let’s not go through the rest). The presidents and prime ministers went along not wanting add to the perception the EU was anti-democratic. The EPP held their nominating congress in Dublin last March and Juncker was unveiled in a haze of ambivalent fanfare. Candidates campaigned across Europe and held a television debate but nobody noticed. They still voted for Mairead McGuinness because she performed well on the radio or shunned Brian Hayes because the government took away their medical card.

The votes were counted, the EPP was the biggest party and Juncker readied his best suit. The trouble started when British Prime Minister, David Cameron, rejected the idea. He argued the EPP has no representation in the UK, Juncker is a has-been and worse, a proponent of more Europe. The rest of the leaders seemed indifferent. Attention turned to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, whose party is a member of the EPP. She seemed to cast doubt over Junker’s ascension leading to a media and political backlash in Germany. Merkel had endorsed Junker, now she was backing away, “Europe votes, Merkel decides”, said Der Spiegel. In London, the Sun linked Juncker to the Nazis. In a very short period of time a major crisis developed.

A fundamental clash

David Cameron cannot retract his rejection of Juncker and Merkel will find it very difficult to withdraw her support. The British are frantically trying to build an alliance to block Juncker and have found willing accomplices in places like the Netherlands and Sweden.

The root of the problem is a fundamental clash between those who want more Europe and less Europe, with the British, Swedes, Danes and some southern European countries believing that Juncker represents more while they want less. They say he’s an old-style federalist, a man of the past, a former long-serving prime minister of Luxembourg and a former chair of the Eurogroup of finance ministers who were responsible for austerity and bail-outs. They point out he resigned as prime minister in 2013 over a spy scandal.

Yet he was also an early advocate of Eurobonds, a proposal to mutualise or combine European debt so that all members of the euro would be able to borrow from the financial markets at the same interest rate meaning a country could not be forced into a bail-out if its costs of borrowing became too high. In theory the plan would mean that the crisis of the past five years could not happen again. The Germans are firmly against the idea as they fear they will have to pay more, which could explain Merkel’s sudden uneasiness about the prospect of Juncker stepping up. The man in the eye of the storm remains defiant. He recently tweeted he is more confident than ever.

Could this lead to the UK leaving the EU?

There is no simple solution, in fact there seems to be no solution at all. The presidents and prime ministers could approve Juncker but that would be catastrophic for David Cameron and could ultimately lead to the UK leaving the European Union. Or they could find a compromise candidate and stand accused of ignoring an election result. The choice of the presidents and prime ministers has to be approved by the European Parliament which is likely to reject any candidate that is not Junker.

So expect to hear a lot more about Jean-Claude Juncker and expect this crisis to get a lot worse before we have a new president of the European Commission.

Stephen O’Shea works in communications and public affairs. He is a former special adviser at the Department of Foreign Affairs and has worked as a journalist for Al Jazeera and RTE. He tweets at @sposhea

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Read: Luxembourg PM Juncker resigns in spy scandal

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