In Shakespeare’s play King Richard III offered his Kingdom for a horse. In a similarly astounding manner the European Parliament seems to be handing control of the EU’s political agenda to the Council in exchange for having its candidate appointed as Commission President. Some see this as an astute way of increasing its power over the Commission. In this thinking, the Commission President will be more willing to bend towards positions taken by the EP if he or she has to thank his appointment to the EP. David Cameron seems to share this view. It has convinced him that accepting the EP’s candidate weakens the EU member states in the European Council. However, the opposite may be true.
Before the Lisbon Treaty came into force the Council appointed the president of the Commission but he or she then had to be “approved” by the European Parliament. The parliament did so after a hearing at which the candidate had to reply to often very detailed questions which sought to obtain assurances on the line he or she would take when at the helm of the Commission. Although the EP never rejected a candidate it did reject some candidates to become “regular” Commissioners or approved them only after having received specific assurances from them. Moreover the EP brought about the decision by the Santer Commission to step down collectively when the French Commissioner found herself in a conflict of interest. Thus the parliament showed that it was willing to use its powers to reject or send home Commissioners when they did not agree with their policies or behaviour.
This time things are different. If, as now seems all but certain, the European Council accepts the “Spitzenkandidat” supported by the EP it is impossible for the parliament to reject him. Even though that candidate was never subjected to the same detailed type of questioning that took place in the past. That also means that he will not have to give any assurances to the EP on policies he will pursue. This time it is the European Council which will be able, via its president Herman Van Rompuy, to make sure that Juncker will know what the member states expect from him. That this is not just likely but actually happening may be clear from press reports according to which Italian Prime Minister Renzi is trying to trade his vote for Juncker for more lenient “Eurozone policies”. Moreover, Juncker is himself a former Prime Minister and peer of many of the current leaders who make up the European Council. Thus he understands their issues very well. Although the EP still has the power to “vote him out” if he takes positions with which the EP does not agree by adopting a “motion of censure”, this will be much more difficult given how hard they lobbied to have him appointed.
Rather than tying him more closely to the EP the end result may well be that Juncker will be more willing to listen to the member states than most of his recent predecessors. But whether that will also mean that Juncker will be open to requests from David Cameron, who lobbied so hard and so openly not to have him as Commission President is less likely. Understandable as that may be, it is not good news for those who see the possible British referendum on EU membership as the most important issue facing the next Commission and indeed the entire EU.