Who cares whether Jean-Claude Juncker becomes the next president of the European Commission (EC)? This pompous mediocrity was prime minister of Luxembourg for 18 years. Running a glorified tax haven meant he was no threat to the more powerful states in the European Union (EU).
So between 2005 and 2013 he was allowed to chair the Eurogroup—the states participating the single European currency. In the role he helped to impose austerity on large parts of the eurozone from 2010 onwards.
Finally booted out by Luxembourg voters last year, Juncker is trying to end his career on a high note. He was chosen as the candidate for EC president by the European People’s Party (EPP) in last month’s European parliamentary elections. The EPP is the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, although it lost votes and seats to forces further to its right. It is nevertheless claiming that it won the elections and is demanding that the EU heads of government appoint Juncker president.
Enter David Cameron, who is campaigning against Juncker’s appointment. Juncker wants the EU to develop into a federal state, so blocking him would curry favour with the Europhobes on the Tory back benches and in the tabloids. Cameron desperately needs to show that he has influence in Europe. The real power in the EU, German chancellor Angela Merkel, is inclined to help Cameron out.
But she is running into a lot of flak in Germany where the main parties support Juncker’s appointment. The powerful news magazine Der Spiegel went as far as to say that Britain should decide to “play by the rules or leave”.
A clutch of centre-left intellectuals headed by the philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the New Labour sociologist Tony Giddens have now rallied to Juncker’s defence. In a letter published in the Guardian and elsewhere last week, they invoke the authority of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty to argue that appointing Juncker would “return sovereignty to the citizens of Europe” and that the European elections marked “the birth of democratic politics in the EU”.
This is absurd at so many different levels. These intellectual notables ignore the fact that most “citizens of Europe” haven’t a clue who Juncker is. And many who did vote backed parties to varying degrees hostile to the EU.
As for the Lisbon Treaty, it is a repackaged version of the European Constitutional Treaty that was roundly rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. The only time that the Lisbon Treaty was put to a popular vote, in Ireland in 2008, it was defeated again.
Juncker and the rest of the EU elite insisted the Treaty was submitted to a second referendum. This time, against the background of the eurozone crisis, Irish voters were blackmailed into voting yes. It is this kind of bullying that has helped fuel the Europe-wide rebellion against the EU.
In a sense, the whole Juncker row is symbolic politics. The European Parliament is a weak body, and in the course of the eurozone crisis the EC president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was reduced to the status of an office boy for Merkel and the leaders of the other big member states.
But it is still shocking that Alex Tsipras, leader of Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece, should also be backing Juncker. Only a few weeks ago Juncker said that Tsipras wasn’t fit to be Greek prime minister. Tsipras was the candidate for EC president for the European Left Party—which brings together many mainstream leftist organisations in the EU.
So why is Tsipras turning the other cheek now? Juncker was an enthusiast for imposing austerity on Greece, at one summit indicating with a chopping gesture what would happen if Athens didn’t do what it was told.
Syriza refused to support leaving the euro at the height of the crisis in 2011-12. It argued that it would be possible to defeat austerity by reforming the EU. Now Tsipras seems to be trying to reassure the big beasts in the EU jungle that he will respect the rules of the game. And so the far right will continue to monopolise the anti-EU rebellion.