Anyone who took Magyar Nemzet seriously would think that Viktor Orbán is not only the strongman of Hungary but also of Europe. A great statesman who is jealously guarding the rule of law in the European Union. According to Magyar Nemzet, Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid for the presidency of the European Commission is down the drain. On the other hand, several commentators (for example Julian Priestley, the former secretary-general of the European Parliament) think it likely that in the final analysis Juncker will be in charge of the European Union for the next five years. We can, however, expect a protracted political fight between the European Council and the European Parliament.
The issue, as far as I can see, brings into focus two vitally important issues: first, the supremacy of the elected European parliament vs. the heads of member states and, second, the very future of the European Union itself.
This is the first time that the European Parliament has an important role to play in the elections and the choice of candidates for president. The leading members of the European Parliament wanted to democratize the election process and run a campaign with the names and pictures of the candidates (commonly known as “Spitzenkandidaten”) heading the party lists. In early March the European People’s Party chose Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, as their man while Martin Schulz was chosen by the socialists. Since as the result of the election the EPP will again be the largest party in the European Parliament, the assumption in parliament is that it will be Juncker who will lead the Union. All the party leaders of the European Parliament stand behind his candidacy.
Enter the European Council, composed of the twenty-eight heads of the member states. The president of the Council is Herman Van Rompuy. Last night these people gathered to discuss the results of the election, and it turned out that there was at least four countries that opposed Juncker’s nomination: Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Hungary. Viktor Orbán announced immediately after the election results became known that Hungary cannot support Junker’s presidency. Hungarian sources claim that the real instigator of the anti-Juncker move was not Orbán but either David Cameron, prime minister of Great Britain, or Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. My hunch is that it was Cameron who was most opposed to Juncker, who is known as a “federalist.” Cameron believes in a union of nation states. During the meeting Merkel, as is her wont, sat on the fence, not committing herself one way or the other. The only agreement to come out of the meeting was that the president of the European Council will negotiate with leading members of the European Parliament and the heads of states about the future president of the EU.
So, on one level the fight that is developing is between the federalists and the “states rights” advocates, while on another it is a struggle between the European Council and the European Parliament. An Austrian paper called the move coming from the European Council a “coup from above.” The coup may not succeed. As EuroActiv reported, Van Rompuy after the meeting said that this first discussion had been “useful,” which is a diplomatic euphemism for inconclusive. However, he also made it clear that he would not embark on a collision course with the European Parliament. According to a source who seemed to have been present at the meeting, Merkel apparently announced that “she is still supportive of the Spitzenkandidaten system and of Juncker,” but made no strong statements to discipline the dissidents. On the Council doorstep Merkel declared: “Jean-Claude Juncker is our Spitzenkandidat.”
Leading members of the European Parliament are outraged, including Joseph Daul, leader of the EPP group, who told Die Welt after Viktor Orbán announced his intention to pick another candidate that one simply cannot pull a new candidate out of the hat. Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialist and Democrats group, tweeted that it is “absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the European Council by his own EPP family!” Julian Priestley expressed the opinion of many that “only if the negotiations between the European parties and the parliament fail does it become conceivable that the European Council might have to reach out for a candidate outside the election process. But they have every incentive to succeed, because what’s at stake is bringing the direction of the EU within the parliamentary system.” And let me add that in my opinion it is essential that the anti-federalist forces are defeated on this issue and that a man is elected who wants “a more perfect union.” The British Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), said of Juncker, “there is nobody more fanatical about building the United States of Europe.” That certainly does not make Juncker a friend of David Cameron and Viktor Orbán.
What is happening at the present in the European Parliament is a “grand coalition between right and left which is taking shape, with the aim of isolating the Eurosceptics.” Not only does Schulz support Juncker, but the leader of the third largest group, Guy Verhofstadt of the liberals, also wants to join them. He emphasized that for the election of the next president they need “a stable majority, that means more than 400 seats. Otherwise it will depend on the backing of parties such as those of Mr. Orbán or Mr. Berlusconi.”
There is at least one Hungarian commentator, Gyula Hegyi, who claims in his article “Juncker-Orbán 2:0” that Cameron and Orbán lost this match. Hegyi used to be a socialist MEP, but in the last five years he has been working for László Andor, commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion. In his interpretation it is true that at the Tuesday night meeting no decision was reached, but those present admitted that the results of the election must be taken into consideration. They also took cognizance of the fact that Juncker is unanimously supported in the European Parliament. So, as far as Hegyi is concerned, it is a done deal. Juncker will be the candidate and will likely be elected by a large majority.
My feeling is that Hegyi and Priestley are right, but given the business practices of the European Union, it will most likely take a whole month, until the very last minute, to agree on the candidacy of Jean-Claude Juncker.