Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz. One of these men could be our Obama. Photo: Getty
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It’s time for a European presidential election

A Luxembourger you’ve never heard of thinks you elected him president. It’s just possible that the system isn’t working.

Consider a tale of two continents. 

On the one hand we have Europe, where the citizenry are disaffected, disillusioned, and on the whole a bit pissed off about the idea of taking orders from Brussels. As a result, in the recent parliamentary elections, eurosceptic parties topped the polls in several countries, not least Britain and France. The Europeans are not, on the whole, a happy bunch.

They could learn a few things, then, from their contented and industrious peers in the nearby, and suspiciously similar, continent of Europe. There, the citizenry are glued to their smartphones, breathlessly awaiting the appointment of the next president of the European Commission.

Leading the pack right now is one Jean-Claude Juncker, a federalist from Luxembourg, who one school of thought believes to be the democratically elected candidate. Juncker was, after all, the choice of the centre-right European People’s Party, which topped last month’s parliamentary elections (and was not even on the ballot in Britain). So strong is his mandate that he’s claimed that not giving him the job, as national leaders including David Cameron are determined not to do, would be the end of European democracy as we know it. “The voters would then know there was no need next time for them to bother voting,” he thundered, “because the parties would have broken their promises.”

So we have one Europe, where the voters are up in arms about the EU, and another where they’re up in arms about those standing in its way. These two Europes have somehow managed to occupy the exact same position on the planet without any sign that either knows that the other exists. If this was an episode of Star Trek, there’d be smoke pouring out of the walls and a rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum. 

Juncker is not entirely out on a limb here: the German press, at least, are largely agreed with his claim that he’s been elected. This was, after all, meant to be the election that finally created the Europe-wide demos that’s so signally lacking at the moment. Historically, appointments to the European Commission were simply a stitch up between national governments, but the rules were recently rewritten to state that the powers-that-be had to take note of the European parliament when choosing.

To make that easier, before the election, each of the four biggest party groupings chose a named candidate (Spitzenkandidaten, if you’re a fan of compound German). The thinking was that allowing people to ‘vote’ for a ‘president’ would turn this into a proper European election, rather than 28 national ones. There were presidential debates and everything.

There’s just one tiny problem with this brave attempt at geeing up Europe-wide political debate: nobody noticed. There are 500 million people in Europe; roughly 0.02 per cent of them tuned in for the debates. No, that isn’t a rounding error.

All this should worry those of us who rather like the idea of the European Union. There’s never been a “single most off-putting aspect of the EU” competition, as far as I can tell; if there was, though, a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg going round claiming to be the elected president of Europe on the grounds that [citation needed] would be in with a really good shot at the prize.

So here’s a radical idea: let’s stop mucking about and do this properly. Let the public choose the next head of the European Commission. No more arguments about unelected bureaucrats; no more stitch ups between a handful of national leaders. Let’s have a proper presidential election.

Such an idea should appeal to those who want to see more integration, if only because it’d create the Europe-wide politics that’s so entirely lacking at the moment. But it would also (no, really) have advantages for those who are less keen on the EU. At long last they’d be able to vote against it, without any one mistaking it for a protest vote or an attack of a national government. Electing a sceptic as commission president could stop ‘ever closer union’ in a way a dozen local Farages never could.

This is extraordinarily unlikely to happen, of course. National governments won’t have it, because making the EU more democratic risks making them weaker. It’d require another nightmarish period of constitutional naval-gazing, of the sort literally nobody has the stomach for. Even Juncker would probably vote no, if only because he’d be less likely to win an actual election.

But if the European project is to survive, we need to find a way of creating a European politics to go with it. Something like this has to be the end game. The current set up’s not working for anyone. 

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.