Analysis - Old Europe vs. New Europe in race for Commission chief

01/21/2014 07:12

Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, takes part in a debate on the future of Europe and the European Union at Thomson Reuters office in Brussels December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Donald Rumsfeld sparked uproar among Europeans a decade ago when he depicted a split over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as pitting "Old Europe" against "New Europe".

The U.S. defence secretary was trumpeting the fact that central and east European countries that were about to join the European Union supported Washington's 2003 military action even though EU founders France and Germany opposed it.

Wounds were still fresh the following year when EU leaders met to nominate a new president of the European Commission, the executive body that proposes and enforces EU laws.

Britain, which fought alongside the United States in Iraq, marshalled enough allies to block anti-war Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the Franco-German choice. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso, who backed the war without sending troops, was chosen instead.

A decade later, the race to succeed Barroso is turning into a different sort of battle between old and new Europe.

The dividing line is no longer over the Iraq war or loyalty to the United States but about the way Europe is governed.

It pits old-style federalists against practitioners of a more inter-governmental approach to running the EU.

Two men vying for the top job epitomise the federalist tradition of European integration - Jean-Claude Juncker, the veteran former prime minister of Luxembourg, and Verhofstadt, who advocates a United States of Europe.

Both contend that the EU has gone off the rails during the euro zone debt crisis, with big member states seizing power for themselves at the expense of the European Commission, without accountability to the European Parliament or European courts.

New crisis management instruments such as the European Stability Mechanism, a rescue fund for euro zone states unable to raise money on the markets, were created outside the EU institutions, giving creditor states a veto with no oversight from the EU legislature. Likewise, the so-called troika of the Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, which enforces austerity programmes in bailed-out countries, is not subject to any democratic European scrutiny.

Juncker and Verhofstadt want a return to the original community method of governance which gives the Commission and parliament more say, and national governments, national parliaments and national courts less.

Both have also supported a bigger central EU budget and opposed a successful drive by Britain and Germany to reduce the bloc's spending over the next seven years.

Their rivals in the conservative and liberal political groups - European Commissioners Michel Barnier of France and Olli Rehn of Finland - have been at the heart of EU crisis management and take a more pragmatic view of how Europe works.

Rehn says the EU wasted a decade obsessing over its institutions rather than focusing on badly needed economic reforms before the crisis erupted in 2010.

That, he argues, is one reason why so many Europeans are disenchanted now and may vote for anti-European populists or abstain in European Parliament elections in May.

Barnier told the French daily Le Figaro his priorities would be practical initiatives to boost industry, build more cross-border infrastructure, extend the EU's single market and bolster security and immigration policy.

The conservative European People's Party will choose its standard-bearer for the elections at a congress on March 6-7 in Dublin. The Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats will pick its front-runner in a secret ballot on February 1.

Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat who is president of the European Parliament, has already secured the Socialist group's nomination and wants to become Commission president.

His views on European integration are similar to those of Juncker and Verhofstadt, not least because he has spent most of his political career in the EU legislature and never held national office. Where you sit is where you stand.

Unsurprisingly, Schulz thinks parliament should have more control and the Commission should be its natural ally against the member states. He has long accused Barroso of toadying to national capitals at the expense of Europe.

It is thus possible that all three main political families will be led into the election by old-style federalists, despite growing public distrust of the EU highlighted in opinion polls and the rise of Eurosceptical populist parties.

Of course, none of these candidates may end up heading the EU executive since it is the European Council of 28 national leaders that picks a nominee, who must then be endorsed by a majority of the 751 lawmakers. No party is likely to come close to an absolute majority, so a coalition involving at least two of the biggest political groups will be required.

If the nominee fails to win the required majority, EU leaders have one month to put forward another name.

The Commission presidency is just one of five or six jobs likely to be carved up in a package deal among member states that balances right, left and centre, big and small states, north and south, east and west, and men and women.

The other positions are president of the European Council, foreign policy chief, a likely future full-time chairman of euro zone finance ministers, president of the European Parliament and possibly also the secretary-general of NATO.

As Europe's most powerful leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have a big say in who becomes Commission president.

She has dismissed any automatic link between European Parliament candidates and the Commission presidency.

German insiders say she would rather see a conservative prime minister such as Ireland's Enda Kenny, Poland's Donald Tusk, Finland's Jyrki Katainen or Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden in the key position, although none of them plans to run for the European Parliament.

A confrontation between the legislature and member states after the elections cannot be ruled out.  TheStar



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