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European Union

Opinion: The Council's got the power

It's not hard to understand why millions of people across Europe decided not to vote in EU parliamentary elections over the weekend. Events this week have already offered a glimpse, writes DW's Felix Steiner.

There has been a gale of lamentation whipping around Europe for the past few days, ever since the numbers came out regarding voter turnout at this past weekend's elections. On average around the bloc, just a bit over half the population made it to the polls, with a new record being set in Slovakia: only 13 percent. Politicians and commentators have, quite predictably, complained of a lack of democratic will and a missed chance to play a role in shaping the future of the Union.

However, not a week has gone by, and perhaps the central message that campaign teams attempted to convey to potential voters over the months leading up to the election has already been dashed. This was supposed to be an election in which one of the top candidates from the major two major groups would be named European Commission president: i.e., either the Socialists' Martin Schulz or the Conservatives' Jean-Claude Juncker. Because it was the explicit aim of those parliamentary groups that such decisions would no longer be made behind closed doors.

Thus, after the heads of those groups agreed Monday on Juncker, it should have followed naturally that the national leaders of the EU's member states simply went along. They didn't. And we know why. Britain's David Cameron and Hungary's Viktor Orban don't like Juncker because they feel he's too pro-EU.

Over the next four weeks there will be a lot of phone conferences and consultations going on in Europe's capitals. Experienced politicians are well aware that it's easier to decide such polarizing issues in private. And they're not going to be talking about just the Commission president. There's also the Council president, the Foreign Affairs High Representative, and the head of the Eurogroup. The suggestions for who will fill these positions before they are presented to parliament on 1 July will be formulated behind de luxe closed doors.

The president may be Jean-Claude Juncker, or perhaps somebody else. And if it is to be somebody else, the parliament will most likely go along with that choice - if necessary with a slight delay. Anything else would cripple the EU at an institutional level, and that's something nobody wants - least of all the European parliamentarians, most of whom aren't ashamed to say they are staunch EU supporters. And that despite great gains made by euroskeptic parties in many of their countries.

So what does all this have to do with the low voter turnout over the weekend? Are those potential voters who didn't make it to the polls necessarily lacking democratic will? Perhaps not. Maybe it's rather that they are perceptive and understand which elections are really important.

The center of power in the EU is - and will remain - the European Council. The leaders of the member states have the final say in Brussels, and this was demonstrated with absolute clarity once again on Tuesday. And that's something we can also see, incidentally, from voter turnout at national elections in EU member states.

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