Trying to understand why nothing bloody works

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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.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz. One of these men could be our Obama. Photo: Getty

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.