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European Union

Opinion: The Juncker experiment

Model European Jean-Claude Juncker certainly fulfills the requirements for his new job as president of the European Commission. But DW's Europe correspondent Bernd Riegert thinks he'll still have a hard time.

The European Parliament has emerged victorious in the battle for power among European Union bodies. The parliament has forced the European Commission to do its bidding through election of old hand Jean-Claude Juncker as next Commission president: The winner of the European elections will become head of the Commission.

This wasn't required by EU treaties. Instead, influential parliamentarians and European party strategists deftly interpreted the Lisbon Treaty, which in fact grants the European Council the right of nominating the Commission's head - to mean that the frontrunner of the European Parliament's election automatically had a right to the Commission president's post.

Contrary to campaigns suggesting voters could directly elect the Commission head, the letter of EU law gives that right to the EU member states' political leaders. Juncker, who belongs to the European People's Party that won the most votes in the elections to the European Parliament, never had his name on a ballot in this election - not even in his home country of Luxembourg.

Many heads of state and government were not happy about having their hand forced - but they gave in, in the end, to avoid a veritable crisis in the EU. Only the British and Hungarian prime ministers continued to reject the process. They have blasted the parliament's actions as undemocratic, and feel as though their rights as representatives of state and government in the parliament have been cut off.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel eventually went along with this system of giving the top post to the leader of the political party that gets the most votes - though it did take her some time to come around. Like many of her colleagues in office, she is also head of her party, so she should know what was brewing at the European party level.

She likely only realized after the results of the European Parliament elections that the trend could no longer be halted. But she was not able to get the British and Hungarians onboard. So, the new European Commission president will be appointed without all the member states' votes.

Council is sleeping

Bernd Riegert
Photo: DW/Per Henriksen

Bernd Riegert covers European politics for DW

Merkel didn't make any genuine effort to prevent appointment of the head of the winning party from the European Parliament election as European Commission president. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the Council and European Parliament were required to agree to a process for electing the Commission's head, one of the most influential positions in European politics.

The heads of state and government who make up the Council, however, refused to do that for years and it's their own fault so they can save the crocodile tears. The Council possesses the broadest powers in the EU framework. Dazzled by their own influence, it didn't take the parliamentarians' tactics seriously - and now has to live with the consequences. In a sense, the Strasbourg vote was historic, as Parliament President Martin Schulz has said.

Juncker, that old fox, will now have to ward off constant opposition from Great Britain and Hungary, and struggle to fulfill the parliament's high expectations. Maintaining his independence under these circumstances will make the difficult job even more so for the nearly 60-year-old. He is supposed to both tame the restive Brits, as well as negotiate reforms intended to keep the United Kingdom part of the EU in light of a likely referendum to break off. On that front, things are not looking good.

Many hurdles for Juncker

With regard to the leading EU posts, and the individual Commission positions, the Council is not likely to allow the icing to be taken along with the cake. There will be some major horse trading over Commissioners and their duties.

Juncker will have to accept the people the capital cities send him. Come autumn, he and his entire team will then face a parliamentary vote of confidence - which could become another test of wills. In the past, the parliament has forced member states to switch out unpopular Commissioners at the relevant hearings.

But most European citizens are not likely to care about the battles among these EU institutions. They're more concerned about European problems like unemployment, growth, immigration and too much bureaucracy.

Juncker has promised to perform his duties pragmatically. Hopefully, the conditions surrounding the vote that put him in office won't slow him down.

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