Unlike John Major in 1994, British Prime Minister David Cameron does not have a veto right over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Commission and he risks ridicule if he is sidelined, says Richard Corbett.
Richard Corbett was elected in May 2014 as a Member of the European Parliament for the British Labour Party, representing Yorkshire and the Humber constituency. Between 2010 and 2014, he was an advisor to European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Publisher and Editor, Frédéric Simon.
The European Parliament has run a campaign claiming that the 2014 European elections will be ‘different this time’. Now the elections are behind us, what do you think? Have they been any different from previous ones?
Yes, to a degree. There have been some differences because of the wider economy context, where Europe’s role has been very visible. There’s also been the lead candidates of political parties for the Presidency of the European Commission, which has worked well in some countries but not in others, it’s been patchy.
It has worked in Germany, in Austria, in Malta as well I heard. In Britain, two of the leading parties did not have a candidate or at least they didn’t say it before the elections. So, it didn’t really feature in the British campaign.
Who do you think should be the next Commission President?
Given the EPP won the most seats and had a leading candidate – Mr Juncker – it’s incumbent upon the European Council to test whether Mr Juncker has the necessary level of support. If they suddenly come up with a new candidate out of the blue, I can be reasonably safe in betting that this candidate would not secure the necessary majority in the European Parliament.
If you come up with another candidate after verifying seriously that Mr Juncker is not able to secure majorities, then it’s acceptable. But you can’t just ignore that political parties had a candidate.
What if a country places a veto on a candidate, like Britain is threatening to do?
There is no single country veto, it is qualified majority nowadays in the Council. So it’s not like when John Major vetoed Jean-Luc Dehaene in 1994.
So you believe David Cameron can be sidelined?
I think this has been a knee-jerk reaction by Cameron to say ‘We don’t like Jean-Claude Juncker so we’re going to stop him’, instead of negotiating with him the conditions for Britain’s support.
After all, the sort of reforms that Mr Cameron wants, if he were ever to secure them, he would need the support of people in that part of the political spectrum that Mr Juncker occupies. So to try and just attack them is silly, you need to engage with them and negotiate the reforms you want in exchange for your support.
This is what Mr Cameron would do if he was sensible. The problem is that he adopted a knee-jerk reaction in response to the right-wing of his party.
What can Cameron do now after having placed a veto?
But he doesn’t have a veto, it’s qualified majority!
Well he certainly seems to think he has a veto.
He’s trying to establish a blocking minority in the Council but up till now he hasn’t got it. So then it’s a question of whether the others are actually willing to outvote him. And it’s on a knife edge as to how this will play out at the moment. They will be reluctant to do so but they know there will be a battle with the European Parliament if they do not nominate the lead candidate of the biggest party.
If that happens, there is this threat of holding an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership earlier than planned…
I’m not sure whether that’s credible or that he even said it, he was quoted as saying it, but did not confirm it.
But it would be a stupid thing to do. Imagine advancing a whole national referendum on your membership of the European Union simply on the basis that you don’t like the guy who is President of the European Commission – that would be totally ridiculous!
Should Britain leave the European Union? Is that a good question to put to the British people?
No, because exit from the European Union would be an economic catastrophe. The real question is what sort of direction you want for the European Union, what reforms you want, what priorities you want, what policies need changing, updating, improving or scrapping – those are the real political questions, not ‘in or out’ when ‘out’ is economic suicide.
Cameron did say he would seek EU reforms first before going for a referendum.
He’s not been very clear as to what he wanted but we can guess from the Conservative party that they would try to scrap or enable Britain to opt out of much of the employment and social legislation, which most member states consider as common rules for the common market that make it a fair, level playing field.
So what Cameron is actually trying to do is a double set of blackmail. First, he tells EU countries ‘Change the EU in the way that I want it or we’re off’. Then if he gets his concessions, the second blackmail is to the British people, ‘This is what I have negotiated, either you approve or we leave.’ The status quo won’t be on the ballot paper, a different set of reforms won’t be on the ballot paper. it is Cameron’s Europe or no Europe.
The Parliament has become much more fragmented after the election. Is a grand coalition the only way forward in such a Parliament?
In a sense the European Parliament has always worked in a sort of informal grand coalition. It is not formalised, its composition can vary issue by issue. In fact the majority has to be built up again for every single subject, often with slightly different configurations.
But given the nature of the European Union – 28 countries with diverse politics and cultures – and the fact that European legislation has to go through the Council by a qualified majority of 74% of votes, you never get a grand slam of left-wing or right-wing governments in the Council. So there always has to be a broad coalition in the Council.
And that also applies in the Parliament. In the EU, you never ram legislation through by a narrow left-wing or right-wing majority. There is always give and take, there is always a consensual Swiss-style system.
Now, the presence of anti-system parties in this European parliament who won’t really be engaged in finding the compromises for legislation – that actually reinforces the tendency to work across the left-right political divide.
Doesn’t that also have the perverse effect of reinforcing the case of the far-right, which argues that the left and right are no different and that they represent the real alternative?
Yes, that’s the downside of this because it makes it more difficult for mainstream parties to argue that the elections are going to be different. You’ve got to show that you make a difference even though you’re acting in a system where you do have to negotiate with the other side.
You got elected on 25 May, how will you try to make a difference?
In the European Parliament, you can actually make a difference. Because unlike in some national Parliaments where there is a governing majority automatically following the government line, a legislative draft is really a draft. This means that you really get to work on it, amend it, persuade and build majorities issue by issue. And you can actually achieve something as an ordinary member.
Do you believe the European Parliament Presidency should be split between the two leading parties during this mandate like it has been in previous parliaments?
It seems natural to me that the two largest political groups take turns for the Parliament presidency. It has not always been the case when Pat Cox was President for the Liberals. But usually, you take the two largest ones.
So you think it should continue?
I think it is likely to continue. I have no objection if there is a good candidate from another group that has widespread respect and support.
What do you expect work in this Parliament to be like with these new anti-system, anti-European and far-right MEPs?
They are quite diverse in their criticisms of the European Union. Some are ultra-libertarians and don’t like the fact that the Single Market has rules to protect consumers, the environment, etc. Others criticise it from an anti-capitalistic leftist perspective, others from a national sovereignty perspective or have a particular gripe about the European Union.
So they are not going to be a very cohesive force. Even if you take those that have a very similar ideology on the right and far-right, for tactical reasons they have all been positioning themselves as more moderate than the other lot. Alternative für Deutschland says ‘We won’t work with the UK Independence Party because they are too extreme’, UKIP says ‘We won’t work with the National Front because they are too extreme for us’, the FN says ‘We won’t work with Jobbik’ and Jobbik says ‘Golden Dawn is too extreme and we’re moderates’.
So, it’s hard for them to come together after the elections having made those promises. The one thing they have in common anyway is that they all hate foreigners so working together doesn’t come naturally to them.
So again, they are not going to be a very cohesive force in Parliament. Judging by the past, they don’t even engage in the work going on in the committees. They like to posture in big debates in plenary but that’s about all they do.
Wouldn’t that make the Parliament more interesting to watch? Nigel Farage is a good showman, he provides good entertainment…
If you think Parliament is about show-business, there might be an element of that. But if you think that Parliament is there to do serious work on behalf of citizens to make sure we get legislation right, then they’re not going to contribute anything.
What do you think distinguishes UKIP from the Front National?
They don’t want to work together but they’re very similar. Their policies on the European Union and a whole range of issues are very similar. Marine Le Pen was saying before the elections how much she admired Nigel Farage.