Sometimes it’s the little things. In 1989, after failing to win a majority in the Irish general election, Charles J. Haughey was forced to formally resign as Taoiseach. People forget this now, because Haughey remained as acting Taoiseach until Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats did the business and assembled a Dail majority to re-elect him as Taoiseach proper.
But it set an interesting precedent, because it means that in 2016 Enda Kenny could return to the Dail with a mere 40-50 TDs, and remain indefinitely as head of a Fine Gael minority government if there is not an agreed majority to replace him. It’s not enough to lose the election: the Dail has to agree on who actually won, and looking at the recent RED C poll, that could be anybody’s guess.
All because of the Haughey precedent of 27 years previously.
The little things matter, and the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission is going to be another one of those things that will snowball into something much bigger in the future.
Juncker was nominated in Dublin last March by the European People’s Party, the largest centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, and the party of both Angela Merkel and Enda Kenny. The Socialists, Liberals, Greens and the Left in the European Parliament also nominated candidates. All with the same understanding: that whichever party won the most seats would supply the next President of the Commission.
It’s this which large elements of the media (and, it would seem, David Cameron) missed. Even now, when you ask people about the European Parliament (you know, the way you do, down the pub) you get back the “powerless talking shop” quip.
Except it isn’t true. It used to be. But now the EP can hire and fire the Commission, block or amend almost any EU law, including the EU budget, and now, as David Cameron has discovered, threaten to veto any European Council nominee for President. The European Parliament just took on Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and beat it. Powerless talking shop? They’ll be wearing “Our Parliament can beat up your prime minister” tee shirts in the Espace Leopold this week.
For years, Europe’s leaders kept getting stick every time they negotiated a new treaty. Europe, they were told, isn’t democratic. Their response was to throw a few bones down the stairs into the basement where they kept their pretend parliament. But nobody seemed to notice that the parliament was gobbling up everything it was given, and growing, and suddenly there’s a banging on the basement door and Europe’s leaders discover there’s a fully grown parliament standing in front of them, and it’s not happy living in the basement anymore.
Jean Claude Juncker can see the new reality. For the first time ever, we have a European Commission President who didn’t get his job purely from the gift of the EU’s presidents and prime ministers, sitting around a dining table and holding an Election by After Eight. His name was one the table early, picked by the EPP, and the Parliament was adamant. The Council has the power to nominate whomever it wants, but Parliament was only going to accept one name.
Juncker is Parliament’s man. He knows it, they know it, and if he wants a second term, he’ll have to remember it too, and being the savvy old operator he is, there’s no doubt he will. He is the prime minister of a majority of the members of the European Parliament. They are the hand that feeds, not the member states.
After all, do you know who (and only who) has the power to sack Juncker? The Parliament. Not the member states. Yet another bone the member states threw down the steps without thinking, hoping it would keep the shouting from the basement down. Now look what they’ve done.
The whole affair can be looked at two ways. One, the British way, is of an old Euro Federalist playing the game much better than Britain’s poor outclassed prime minister. Britain outsmarted once again by devious backroom continental dealers with their compromises and Everybody Must win A Prize ways.
Or there’s another way.
How was Juncker’s outgoing predecessor, Jose Manual Barroso picked ten years ago? The answer: out of the blue days before the vote, pretty much unknown to anyone who wasn’t Portuguese.
Yet those of us who actually care about this stuff (the Trekkies of international democratic politics) have known that Juncker, the Socialists’ Martin Schulz and the Liberals’ Guy Verhofstadt were the names on the table. In a debate before the European elections, transmitted on telly (with an RTE host, by the way) and hardly watched by anybody, Schulz said very clearly, with Juncker to his side, that the next President of the European Commission would come from one of the candidates on the stage.
This wasn’t some secret backroom deal. This was the most transparent process for we have ever had for choosing a Commission President ever, and whilst it’s true that most Europeans didn’t even vote in the European Elections, that’s a choice in itself. The whole point of being a democracy is that you can’t make people participate in it, only have the right to participate.
But this all matters. In 2019, when the next European Elections come around, will the media and the member states pay closer attention to the nominees of the European parties? You’re damn right they will. This is a game changer.