The European Union is in deep trouble. Growth is sluggish at best, unemployment punishingly high and deflation threatens.
The European elections returned many populist, anti-EU members to the European Parliament; public support for the project has plummeted. Against this background, the squabble over who should be the next president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, looks an ever more dangerous tragicomedy: Franz Kafka meets Dario Fo.
The front-runner for the job is Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured). The former prime minister of Luxembourg was picked as “lead candidate” by the centre-right pan-European political group, the European People’s Party (EPP), in March.
He stands for the cosy federalist consensus that many European voters want to change. He was an ineffectual head of the euro group of finance ministers, creating doubts over his ability to run the commission–a huge job at the moment.
Most EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, the union’s de facto empress, consider Mr Juncker a bad choice. But since the EPP has the most seats in the parliament, his supporters claim that to seek any alternative is to deny democracy.
Mrs Merkel was hounded by the German press for flirting with other names such as Christine Lagarde, the French head of the IMF. The only strong opposition to Mr Juncker comes from David Cameron, who fears Britain will be more likely to leave the EU if Mr Juncker is its public face.
But Mr Cameron has no veto in the decision and since everything associated with Eurosceptic Britain is toxic in Brussels, his opposition is making it harder for the others to drop Mr Juncker.
It is not even clear that Mr Juncker wants the job. He is said by some to prefer becoming president of the European Council of national leaders. So Europe’s rulers could put somebody they do not want in a job he may not want.
It is possible that this is an example of the Merkelvellianism for which the German chancellor has gained a reputation: by dithering, she is letting enough opposition emerge for her “regretfully” to dump Mr Juncker (or give him the council job) and hand the commission to a better candidate.
Our preference would be Ms Lagarde, but other competent names being proposed include Enda Kenny of Ireland, Jyrki Katainen of Finland and Pascal Lamy, a French Socialist and former boss of the World Trade Organisation.
By even entertaining the option of Mr Juncker, Europe’s leaders have indulged two dangerous fantasies for their union. The first is that “more of the same” is an option. In fact, without reform, Europe faces stagnation or even break-up.
The second fantasy is that the parliament is somehow more democratic than the European Council of (elected) heads of government. This is nonsense. Hardly any European voters have heard of Mr Juncker.
They treat European elections as second-order national polls. In every single EU country, turnout is much higher in national elections. Under the Lisbon treaty, the European Council, “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”, is meant to nominate a candidate who is then “elected” by the parliament.
By insisting that it will block anybody other than Mr Juncker, the parliament is trying to deny the European Council its prerogative.
The folly of indulging this second fantasy could be revealed very quickly. Imagine that Mr Juncker withdraws and Mr Lamy or Ms Lagarde is pushed forward.
The European Parliament, which now believes itself the acme of democracy, might well say no. Europe will then find that its economic crisis is followed by an–entirely avoidable–constitutional one.
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