27 June 2014
In Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's member states have settled on a European Commission president who is potentially ill-suited to the role for which he has been chosen, and selected through a process which has proved to be flawed in its execution. Further, it has significant consequences for the balance of power between the EU's institutions, key bilateral relationships between the EU's member states (especially the position of the UK), and for the likely future agenda of the EU.
Richard Whitman

Professor Richard G Whitman

Associate Fellow, Europe Programme


Jean-Claude Juncker delivers a speech during the announcement of the European elections results on 25 May 2014, at the European Parliament in Brussels. Photo by John Thys/AFP/Getty Images.
Jean-Claude Juncker delivers a speech during the announcement of the European elections results on 25 May 2014, at the European Parliament in Brussels. Photo by John Thys/AFP/Getty Images.


As the smoke clears after the European Union's 'battle of Ypres', the consequences of the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission start to come into focus. The process of selection of the new president of the Commission has been the most controversial in the EU's history. If there is a winner, it is the European Parliament rather than either the European Commission or the member state governments.

The provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon signed in 2009 introduced the provision that the president of the European Commission was to be appointed ‘taking into account the elections to the European Parliament’. For the May 2014 elections the main political party groupings in the European Parliament interpreted this as an opportunity to run the elections for the assembly as a simultaneous Commission presidential campaign. They chose nominees for the role of president of the Commission should they receive the largest number of members of the European Parliament. The nomination of candidates prior to the European Parliament elections was not envisioned by the EU's member states when they agreed on the Lisbon Treaty reforms. The German domestic political debate during the European Parliament election campaign dubbed these party-nominated figures as the Spitzenkandidaten. However, the candidates were not scrutinized in Germany, nor elsewhere, on the basis of whether they possessed the appropriate qualities for the role of president of the European Commission.

By accepting Juncker, the member states have created a precedent that will prove impossible to reverse. For many of the European Parliament's supporters this is a moment of constitutional significance. It has created a direct relationship between the votes of EU citizens to the programme that the EU should pursue for the next five years. Whether many voters fully appreciated, and intended, their vote in the European Parliament elections to be indicative of support for the Spitzenkandidaten will be an ongoing issue of controversy. Juncker, however, now has a profound debt to the European Parliament and one that may require repayment, especially if he seeks a second term as European Commission president.

Juncker is only one of the key appointments that EU member states have a responsibility to determine. The choice of the next president of the European Council (the body that brings together the EU's heads of state and government) and the high representative and vice president for foreign affairs now follows, with an appropriate balance to be struck between political party affiliation, member state nationality and gender. This process will not have as a prime consideration the capacity and compatibility of the heads of the EU's key institutions to work together for the EU's collective benefit. Tussles for supremacy may replace the relatively harmonious working relationship that developed between the current post holders Commission President José Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and High Representative Catherine Ashton. Juncker already has a reputation among Brussels insiders as a sometimes difficult personality based on the experience of his role as president of the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers  between 2005 and 2013.

Junker will now enter into negotiations with member states on the composition of his Commission and the allocation of portfolios between the members of the Commission. This is a major challenge for Junker and will set the tone and tenor of his Commission. Balancing member state aspirations for a significant policy portfolio with the available major areas of policy and responsibility is a delicate balancing act, and the member states that have actively supported Juncker's candidature will be anticipating a reciprocal show of support.

The European Commission needs creative and dynamic leadership if it is to see Europe's economic competiveness restored and the damage that the world recession and eurozone crisis has done to the popularity of European integration  among Europe's publics, and with perceptions outside Europe that it is a project in decline. The creativity in leadership needed to overcome these challenges does not obviously come from Juncker who is the consummate Brussels insider.

The UK's attempts to mobilize opposition to the European Parliament election outcomes determining the Commission president came too late, were poorly executed and appeared to many commentators to be obsessed with the man and not the message. But the UK government's concern that the process of determining the nominee was flawed is legitimate. The idea that the Commission president should take a creative approach to the challenges of the EU deserves significant consideration. These issues remain on the table.

A key challenge for British diplomacy in the coming months will be to find a modus vivendi with Juncker. As president of the European Commission during and after the UK's 2015 general election, Juncker's stance on the UK's relationship with the EU, the prospects and modalities of re-negotiating the terms of membership − and a possible referendum campaign − will be significant. His style and stance on the question of the UK's continuing EU membership could be one of the most influential aspects of his role as Commission president during his five-year term of office.

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