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Real backroom deals and the collective failure of the European Council – a reply to Simon Nixon and others

I’ve already had my say on the Spitzenkandidaten-process-debate. Yet, over the weekend, I had to laugh about the absurdity of one quote in Simon Nixon‘s Wall Street Journal blog post “Blame Merkel, not Cameron, for Juncker Mess“.

Here’s what he wrote

“Mr. Juncker is being foisted on the European Council by the European Parliament as a result of a back-room deal between the major European parliamentary groups to support the appointment of the nominated lead candidate—or Spitzenkandidat—of whichever party won the most seats in last month’s elections” (my highlight)

Now, Nixon wrote this in a blog post for a reason: it means that he can ignore journalistic standards to make his point (a little joke from last decade’s debate journalists vs bloggers).

He can ignore that that the so-called “backroom deal” that made Juncker  Parliament’s (initial) candidate has been publicly debated and voted upon in the European Parliament plenary almost a year ago, publicly visible for anyone who wanted to see it.

So if Simon Nixon had wanted, he could have read this in the European Parliament resolution of July 2013:

“Expects that, in this process, the candidate for Commission President put forward by the European political party that wins the most seats in the Parliament will be the first to be considered, with a view to ascertaining his or her ability to secure the support of the necessary absolute majority in Parliament”

In addition, the selection of the Spitzenkandidaten has been a fairly open process – not overly competitive, admittedly, and not extremely exciting, but Angela Merkel also didn’t face a contender when she became German Spitzenkandidat about a decade ago and then was elected Chancellor in a grand coalition with the main party she just ran against. True, only some media dared to cover Spitzenkandidaten before the elections (hint: not the UK media) and so few citizens outside Germany and a limited amount of other EU countries were aware of the process, but that’s not (only) the fault of the Spitzenkandidaten.

Anybody – like Simon Nixon – who calls Juncker the result of an EP backroom deal, even ignoring the Parliament’s resolution quoted above, will also have to ignore that Juncker won a vote against Michel Barnier to be EPP’s leading candidate, which was the moment when all those who never wanted Juncker (which I can fully understand having seen him sleepwalk through his election campaign) could have raised their voices loud and clear (and even propose a better candidate before the vote).

So unlike the European Council and its members – the heads of state and government -, the European Parliament and the European Political Parties have been playing quite open about what they want, who they want, how they want it. It’s fine not to like this. And it’s fine not to like Juncker. But it’s clear that the real backroom deals are not done by Parliament or by the parties. The real backroom deals are done but our “top” leaders.

If the European Council had wanted, it could have reacted to the European Parliament resolution one year ago. It could have made clear from the start how it saw the nomination procedure, the role of the Spitzenkandidaten, of the parties, or the European Parliament.

Instead, the European Council met only after the European elections in what was just “an informal dinner“, not an official European Council meeting. This means that there is even less documentation than European Council meetings generally have for the public or the historic records.

Too often in the last weeks I have heard the argument that the European Council had so much more electoral legitimacy to decide what “Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament” means. The problem is that that’s a weak argument in light of reality, because as a collective body their legitimacy collapses in this process.

Individually, each of the participants may have more legitimacy from national voters, but collectively they don’t even dare to have an official meeting on this important matter, choosing informality instead. An official meeting would make them accountable to their voters, but in informality the democratic legitimacy collapses into egos clashing behind closed doors without any clear procedures or responsibilities for failure – not much legitimacy there.

Finally, this weekend’s meeting in a boat ultimately proved that the way the European Council makes its decisions on EU top positions doesn’t have more legitimacy than a fairly open process in which the leading party’s candidate is offered the chance to try to get a majority in the Euroean Parliament. Despite the photos, it’s the ultimate proof of how this is a matter of secrecy for the European Council, not a matter of public debate.

The Spitzenkandidatenprocess maybe have been flawed in its overall design and disappointing in outcome with regard to the individuals chosen or the public attention all this generated, but at least the public could know what it got in advance. At least, there was some kind of procedure that was predesigned, predictable, not the result of some paddling in a boot somewhere on a lake in Sweden between a subset self-proclaimed negotiators for a better European Union without any written evidence or public argument.

The truth is: We are watching the heads of state and government run publicly from backroom discussion to backroom discussion to strike a deal that doesn’t make them look bad because they failed to publicly take a stance before the elections. Because they feared facing the democratically elected European Parliament in a debate that they may have lost in the public eye.

Not to mention that most, with the notable exception of Cameron, of those who sit in the European Council have been campaigning with the Spitzenkandidaten in recent months. This means that those who praise the democratic legitimacy of the European Council leaders should criticise them for flip-flopping between what they did before the elections and what they say afterwards. Those who praise their wisdom and democratic responsibility should note that in reality they are failing their own voters by lying to them.

In short, the members of the European Council are cowards. They avoided the public debate before the elections and they now have to collectively clean up the mess they left by not being clear, open and by shying away from a democratic debate from the start about how they saw the nomination process and the candidates. Their backroom (and back-of-a-boat) deal habits are the trouble in this process, nothing else.

(Slightly edited after publication)

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