One year after Jean-Claude Juncker was elected, the Parliament is undergoing a radical change, says Michael Kaeding, who believes that Juncker’s leadership style is giving MEPs new political power.
Michael Kaeding is a Jean-Monnet Professor of European integration and European politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Kaeding has also taught at the European College in Bruges. He is co-author of The 2014 European Elections – Spitzenkandidaten, protest parties and non-voters.
Kaeding spoke with EURACTIV Germany’s Dario Sarmadi.
After taking office on 15 July 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that he hoped to lead the most political European Commission so far. Has this happened?
The European Commission has become considerably more political. That can be observed in the composition of the college. There have never been so many Commissioners with high-profile political careers. With Frans Timmermans, we have never had such an influential First Vice-President. In addition, Juncker himself is working very politically and is proof that there is a connection between voting in the European elections and the selection of the Commission President.
What does Juncker’s appointment mean for the European Parliament?
Cooperation between the Parliament and Commission has been strengthened considerably. The Juncker Commission draws its legitimacy from the Parliament and the Parliament sees the Commission as its Commission. More than ever, the Commission is seeking the Parliament’s position on big political questions. For example, the Commission made a bold proposal against the will of the member states for a fairer distribution of refugees. On the Greek crisis, it has been prepared to make more concessions to the Greek government, putting it clearly on the Parliament’s side on both issues. The Juncker Commission functions as an extension of the Parliament.
On the other hand, there are much fewer legislative proposals…
The Juncker Commission promised to focus on the big issues and initiate less legislation. It has kept that promise. It has even withdrawn legislative proposals. Besides the growing political power of the Parliament, it could deal more with technical regulatory standards, which have a significant influence on the functioning of the internal market and therefore also for citizens. In addition, the parliamentary committees could focus more on the extent to which European laws have had the desired effect at the national, regional and communal levels – keyword “Services Directive”.
Did the concept of Spitzenkandidaten have an effect on the power structure between the Commission and the European Parliament?
The Parliament knows how to bind the Juncker Commission to itself via the Spitzenkandidaten process. Due to a new distribution of voting power in the European Parliament, there is a stronger inter-institutional convergence between the Parliament and the Commission which did not exist before. This is noticeable by the fact that the Commission has a larger power politics interest in routinely notifying the political groups, particularly the larger ones, on the Commissioners in each of their respective party families. This helps avoid problems with the Parliament later.
What implications does the Spitzenkandidaten process have for the 2019 European Elections?
The nomination of Spitzenkandidaten – as it occurred in 2014 – should be kept in place for 2019. In this way, the connection between voting and the election of the Commission President remains intact.
What will that depend on?
It all depends on how successful the Juncker presidency will be. If Juncker’s work bears fruit, the Spitzenkandidaten process will be rated a success and the interpretation of Article 17 Paragraph 7 TEU, which was applied for the first time, will endure in the long-term. As a next step, it will also help orient campaigns more toward party politics, because European party families can rely on the actual relevance of their lead candidates.
And if Juncker fails?
Then the European Parliament, in particular, will leave the pitch as a loser, because it has linked its credibility to the Commission’s power to shape politics. If Juncker fails, it will be used as an argument against permanent adoption of the 2014 procedure.
How is the European Parliament doing after the 2104 elections? We know that the right and left fringes of the political spectrum have gained support.
The European Parliament is still dominated by the two biggest political groups, the EPP and the social democratic S&D, even if both groups have been on equal footing since last year. The EPP is increasingly reluctant to work together with the ECR, because it also represents Eurosceptic parties like the AfD and the Danish People’s Party. The ‘Grand Coalition’ between the EPP and the S&D is more important than ever.
What does that mean for decision-making?
The changes are especially noticeable within the respective political groups. Because majorities are scarce, the national delegations within the two biggest groups take on a special role. This has been clearly demonstrated in the latest votes on TTIP, Turkey’s progress report or the strategy for a secure European energy supply.
Which country has gained the most from this development?
The German delegations are the primary beneficiaries, because they are among the largest national delegations. But above all, they operate in a very cohesive manner and are therefore developing significant political power. If, for example, the 34 MEPs from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) were to join in resisting the pressure of the EPP, it would threaten the absolute majority between the EPP and the S&D.
That cannot be in the interest of the political groups…
That is why, for a few months now, they have been making procedural changes to work towards group discipline. Coordinative and rapporteur positions, for example, are only given to MEPs who are active and stay true to the group line. This is something we also see in the Bundestag, but not yet from the European Parliament. It also explains why more and more MEPs did not come to vote in the last votes. They stray from group discipline.
Marine Le Pen has established a new right-wing political group. Should MEPs from democratic parties be afraid?
It is true that now, the xenophobic Eurosceptics have also been able to gain the status of a political group. They have united a distinct scepticism regarding immigrants. Now all that is missing is for violent anti-Europeans and anti-democrats to succeed in forming a political group. But should MEPs from pro-European groups should be afraid? No. Only if their total share continues to increase, and inner coherence values among Eurosceptic political groups make considerable growth in the future. At the moment, that is not how it looks.