European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (L) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy at a press conference in Brussels on May 27.(GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle for political control of the European Union has begun. With the elections for the European Parliament over, member states are now negotiating the appointment of officials at some of the Continent's most important institutions, including the European Commission and the European Council. Because the largest economies in the bloc dominate these negotiations, the debate risks deepening the political fragmentation between countries in Western Europe and countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
The EU members in Central and Eastern Europe cannot afford to leave the bloc because they depend on the European Union for funding and subsidies. However, these countries are likely to start ignoring and selectively challenging decisions made in Brussels.
The slogan that the European Union chose for the European Parliament elections was "This time it's different." Its goal was to stimulate citizens to vote by promising that the elections would directly affect the appointment of the new president of the European Commission, the Continent's executive body and a key actor in shaping Europe's political and economic agenda. Member states appointed previous commission presidents in closed-door meetings.
But there is a chance that this time it will not be different. The European legislation is quite vague regarding the process of appointing the commission president. The Lisbon Treaty says member states appoint the president, taking into consideration the results of the European Parliament elections. This opens the door for member states to have different views on exactly what "taking into consideration" means.
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This highlights Europe's perennial dilemma between national sovereignty and continental integration. The European Parliament elections confirmed that a large number of people feel disenchanted with European integration. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands and Hungary, believe that the strong performance of Euroskeptical parties indicates that the next EU Commission should work to protect the free market but also to reduce the bureaucracy in Brussels and devolve some responsibilities to member states. Others, such as Germany, believe that the only way to solve Europe's problems is through further integration, and appointing a pro-EU commission president is the best way to do it. Germany needs a pro-integration commission because a more integrated Europe gives Berlin more authority in managing the bloc's crisis.
Italy and France have their own views on what the next European Commission should look like. The center-left governments in Rome and Paris hope that a progressive European Commission president would side with Mediterranean countries in their push for a change of direction, to focus on growth, employment and some degree of protectionism.
Italy and France agree with the United Kingdom that the European Union needs to be reformed but have completely different views on how to do it. For London, the bloc should be little more than a free trade zone, where national governments regain the sovereignty they gave up to Brussels. Rome and Paris defend more continental integration if it means more fiscal transfers from the core to the periphery, more subsidies and softer debt and deficit targets. This puts Berlin in an awkward situation: Germany opposes the United Kingdom's push to reverse continental integration but needs the United Kingdom to protect the free market in Europe and counterbalance Italy and France. At the same time, Berlin needs to protect the eurozone, for which support from Rome and Paris is indispensable.
Germany supports former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a pro-integration and conservative politician, as the next commission president. From Berlin's perspective, appointing Juncker respects both the results of the European Parliament elections (Juncker's European People's Party got the most seats in the continental legislature) and Berlin's vision of the future of the European Union.
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Others, including the United Kingdom and Italy, suggest that national governments need to explore more options. British Prime Minister David Cameron believes that a pro-integration commission would further alienate British voters, who gave record support to the Euroskeptical U.K. Independence Party. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi holds that a conservative European Commission would alienate Italian voters, who supported center-left candidates in the elections. This is a reminder of the extent to which national calculations directly affect continental politics.
The question of whether the results of the European Parliament elections need to be respected when appointing the next commission president is not a minor one. The continental legislature was created precisely to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the bloc. If member states ignore the results of the EU elections, they could create a serious political conflict with the European Parliament, which will have the ultimate say in ratifying the new European Commission. More important, it would be a slap in the face for the millions of voters who participated in the May 22-25 electoral process.
The East-West Divide
This negotiation presents an additional problem. Countries in Western Europe are debating who will get which seat at which institution, while countries in Eastern Europe are becoming increasingly worried about events in Ukraine. In recent weeks, the two largest players in the region, Poland and Romania, turned to the United States for military and economic assistance. Warsaw and Bucharest are calculating that the largest players in Western Europe, including Germany and France, are unwilling to confront Russia.
When Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union in the mid-2000s, they saw integration as a synonym of economic prosperity and, to some extent, security. But now they see Germany holding continuous talks with Russia, dragging its feet on sanctions and keeping an ambiguous position on NATO membership prospects for countries such as Georgia. Over the past few weeks, the French government has said repeatedly that it would honor its agreement with Russia and deliver the military ships it promised to Moscow. Poland was particularly upset by the cold reaction it got when it proposed to create an EU body to purchase natural gas on behalf of the 28 members of the bloc -- a move that some Central European countries also rejected.
For Western European countries, EU integration means preserving their control of the EU institutions and appointing officials who serve their interests. All the heads of relevant EU institutions are from Western Europe. The president of the European Commission is Portuguese, the president of the European Council is Belgian, the head of EU diplomacy is British, the president of the European Parliament is German and the head of the European Central Bank is Italian. Moreover, Western European nations are no longer trying to hide the existence of a "two-speed Europe" in which the main focus of policy is the eurozone. Central and Eastern nations are also appalled by the nationalistic environment in the West, as country after country criticizes immigration and proposes reforms to make it harder for Eastern workers to access welfare benefits.
Central and Eastern European countries cannot afford to leave the European Union. They depend heavily on the bloc for money, from agricultural subsidies to cohesion funds. EU money funds many of the infrastructure projects undertaken in these countries, and the Common Agricultural Policy still benefits farmers in places such as Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. Rather than leave the bloc, these countries are more likely to start ignoring Brussels on some issues and challenging it on others. Bulgaria is in tense negotiations with Brussels over the South Stream pipeline, a project that the European Commission criticizes but Sofia supports. Hungary has repeatedly shown its willingness to challenge the European Union. Poland and Romania are calling on the United States to become more involved in the region and saying they have no plans to join the eurozone in the foreseeable future.
Long before the Ukrainian crisis, Europe was fragmenting between eurozone and non-eurozone countries, and further divisions were forming within each group. That countries in Central and Eastern Europe are turning to the United States to cope with their political and military crisis is quite telling of the extent to which they trust the European Union to help them.
The process of appointing a new European Commission will probably take months because member states will first have to reach an agreement and then the European Parliament will have to ratify it. After that, member states will also have to appoint a new president for the European Council, which represents the heads of state and governments of the European Union. Both negotiations offer Europe the opportunity to bridge the gap between the east and the west of the bloc. The appointment of a Central or Eastern European national in a key position would be a strong signal of continental unity. There is a great chance, however, that Berlin, Paris, Rome and London will continue dominating the negotiations.