Cameron’s approach to European Commission Presidency – a failed strategy based on wilful ignorance

Ever since the European Parliament elections, David Cameron has been in the headlines on the subject of who should, and shouldn’t be the next European Commission President.

Of course, Cameron was and is playing to the UKIP gallery; a failed attempt to make him look strong vis-à-vis the European Union will end in showing up the mess we get ourselves into when we don’t play by the rules (and by good practice).

And then there is the question: why is this appointment so crucial that Cameron would risk making such a big mistake? In the UK, everyone talks about the Commission President as if the post was in some way comparable to the US President. It isn’t.

The role is to lead the European Commission. True, the European Commission writes much of the law that comes out of the European Union; but it does so on the basis of a broad agenda set by the European Council and the Council of the European Union; and all legislative proposals are scrutinised both by the Council of the European Union and by the European Parliament; they can be amended during this process and they need to consent of both to actually make it into law.

And of course, the Commission President isn’t doing any of this by himself. There are many other influential people in this process – even within the Commission; and there has been very little discussion about how the UK might crank up it’s influence by ensuring that some of the key posts go to key British players: one of the Commissioners will be British, but who will be sent and which portfolio will they get; key posts in the Directorates General, where the legislation is actually being written. Cameron has firmly taken his eye off that important ball and instead focused completely on a personality issue.

The way the appointment is made

Cameron has been quoted at least twice in the Daily Telegraph as saying: ‘I am completely unapologetic about standing up for an important principle in Europe, which is that the elected heads of government should make these choices.’[1]

So let me set out how the President of the European Commission is appointed and what changes have taken place over time.

In the original Treaty of Rome (agreed in 1956 when the EU was established in the form of the European Economic Communities – EEC), the Heads of State/Government of the Member States appointed the President of the European Commission and the decision had to be unanimous.

The Treaty on European Union (commonly known as the Maastricht Treaty) concluded in 1993 included a provision that gives the European Parliament a right to be consulted on the appointment of the President of the European Commission.

In the Amsterdam Treaty, which came into force in 1999, this was formalised as follows:

‘The governments of the Member States shall nominate by common accord the person they intend to appoint as President of the Commission; the nomination shall be approved by the European Parliament.’[2]

Finally, in the Treaty of Nice, which came into force in 2003, the unanimity of the decision of the Council (i.e. the Heads of State/Government of the Member States) was changed to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). So the UK was present and agreed to each of these changes which now leave a position which:

  • Makes the nomination of the President of the European Commission a matter for the Heads of State/Government – i.e. the European Council which is meeting this week in Ypres – to be agreed by QMV
  • Gives the European Parliament the right to approve (or not to approve) that nomination.

Hence, David Cameron could never have hoped to stop the nomination of appointment of a particular person to this post by himself alone.

So whilst the European Council makes the nomination, the European Parliament has a say over the appointment. Not only is this enshrined in the Treaties which UK Heads of Government have agreed to, it is also reasonable in a democratic set-up in which the European Parliament is directly elected.

One of the big problems with this whole thing is that especially the UK public doesn’t understand the system and David Cameron’s antics over this issue have made that situation worse, not better.

The role of the European Parliament

In the Lisbon Treaty, which is the Treaty currently in force, the appointment of the President of the European Commission is foreseen as follows in Article 17 Paragraph 7 as follows:

‘Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.’[3]

This is the crucial bit. Because of the phrase ‘taking into account the elections to the European Parliament’ the political groups in the European Parliament (or at least some of them) propose a candidate for the role of President of the European Commission well before the European Parliament elections. And the assumption is (and in the case of the current President of the European Commission this is what happened) that the candidate of the political group with the largest number of MEPs is then proposed by the Council of the European Union.

In this case, Jean-Claude Juncker, is the candidate proposed by the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) called EPP. This was made plain in the campaign by those parties right across Europe.

There is no British voice in this group because in 2009 as leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron removed the Tory Party from this group to form it’s own group (with a few other parties). The effect of this on this issue is that there was no party in the UK during the EU election campaign that spelled out that the candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission of the EPP group was Jean-Claude Juncker. The other effect was, of course, that had Cameron kept the Tories in the EPP, he might have had a chance of influencing the choice of candidate upstream.

To be fair, none of the other parties in the UK made a big deal of their candidates for this role either. In part this is because the system is not well understood and because making these things clear would not work with a Eurosceptic agenda.

So now the EPP is the biggest group in the European Parliament and expects its candidate to be proposed by the European Council.

To put this into perspective, the seats won by each of the political groups are currently as follows (although there are still some questions about some parties and which groups they might go into – but those are questions relating to the smaller groups):

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 16.02.08

The UK political parties are distributed between these groups as follows:

EPP             None

S&D             Labour Party

ECR             Conservative Party, Ulster Unionist Party

ALDE            Liberal Democrat Party

GUE/NGL      Sinn Féin

Greens/EFA  Green Party, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales

EFD             UKIP

NI               Members of the Democratic Unionist Party

Building Alliances

I am not arguing that Jean-Claude Juncker is the perfect candidate for the job; in fact, you will be surprised to read that I don’t have a strong opinion on this question.

But there is a question of process and appropriateness of process.

Let’s look first of all at who the Heads of State/Government are who might support the EPP candidate because they are from a party that supports that group. And let’s put this in the context of the way the issue will be voted on if there is going to be vote.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 10.17.16

Under Qualified Majority Voting, to be carried a majority has to fulfil the following criteria:

▪   260 votes

▪   16 Member States

▪   65% of the EU population


The table shows that none of the groups is going to achieve this by itself. So alliances have to be built.

The problem for David Cameron is: he is in a group by himself as none of the other members of the European Council belong to a party which sits in the ECR group; he has made enemies by attacking Jean-Claude Juncker personally in the context of this issue; he has therefore lost the backing he might have had from some of the more prominent EEP members of the European Council.

What he should have done:

  • Work out the arithmetic of his position – it has taken me a scant 2 hours to do so; I’m sure he has someone in No. 10 who could have spared the time
  • Work out why he is opposed to Juncker. The word on the street – or rather in the UK media is that Juncker is not in favour of reforming the EU and that he is a federalist (in other words likely to favour more, rather than less, integration). So it might have been useful to have a conversation with him to see if that’s actually true
  • Be clear (or at least clearer) about the type of reforms he wants; even after the laborious and frankly not very informative ‘Balance of Competence’ review which the government has undertaken as a prelude to re-negotiating the balance of powers with the EU, it is far from clear what precisely the government wants out of these negotiations. If he was clear about this, he might have been surprised (or not) by the response from Mr Juncker. But he might also have been able to build alliances around the issues (rather than a person) with other members of the European Council.

As it is, he has alienated the allies for reform he had; he has increased the level of misinformation among the UK public; he has engineered a situation where the person who is likely to be the President of the European Commission from November 2014 onwards will be hostile to whatever comes out of London – at least so long as David Cameron sits in No. 10. And he has, therefore, shot himself not just in one foot but rather in both of them and his knees to boot.

The result: if there is going to be an in/out referendum, it is most likely on the basis of David Cameron not having achieved and significant reform. And we all know where that will lead.

Let’s make sure that scenario will never happen.

[1] Peter Dominiczak and Bruno Waterfield, ‘Fears over Jean-Claude Juncker’s drinking’, Daily Telegraph 26 June 2014, accessed at: on 27 June 2014

[2] Amendment to Article 158 (2) of the previous treaty as set out in paragraph 40 of the Amsterdam Treaty; quoted from p. 43, accessed on 26 June 2014

[3] Title III, Article 17, Paragraph 7, Treaty on European Union (Consolidated Version), accessed at: on 26 June 2014


About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
This entry was posted in Behind the Headlines, Politics in context, The mechanics of politics, UK-EU and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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