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 Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.