Modern Europe is rapidly destroying its self-created image of a political association where major issues are resolved not through backroom deals but through open democratic procedures. After the May elections to the European Parliament, EU leaders started selecting nominees for the top EU positions. Obviously, nobody expected them to be guided by the interests of the community rather than their personal or national preferences. However, the ultimate prevalence of the personal ambitions of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and others stunned even the most cynical observers. As a result of these elections, the EU leaders’ new teams consist of politicians in the second and third tiers, which are sooner known by their proximity to national leaders or showmanship than real achievements or comprehensive ideas. Still, there weren’t really grounds to expect anything different.
Modern Europe is a fairly rigid political system, especially by the yardstick of our times. World politics requires more vivid personalities in global leadership positions like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi. European leaders sooner embody the stage of rejection that is typical of Europe’s attitude toward the real requirements of the political and economic environment. In addition, the results of the negotiating process keep national leaders in their roles as the leading political players in Europe. This will impede the development of European integration institutions for the foreseeable future.
A living symbol of Europe’s rejection of reality is the apparently irreplaceable German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, even after the May shock, adheres to a problem solving strategy that centers on ignoring the problem.
The general reduction in the importance and political role of the heads of EU institutions relative to the national leaders makes it possible to choose nominees for these positions based on national preferences and bargaining rather than professional qualification. In the process, it is forgotten that any failure by these appointees inevitably become the failures of the heavyweights that patronize them. Thus, the abortive attempt of a fairly dull party bureaucrat from Bavaria, Manfred Weber, to occupy a key EU position – President of the European Commission – has already damaged the reputation of Merkel. The Federal Chancellor’s consistency in the effort to promote a “major candidate” from the European People’s Party (conservatives) led to the nomination of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen for the position of President of the European Commission. Ms Leyen is little known in the international and European arenas.
As usual, the leaders of the EU countries were faced with the dilemma of choosing between national and general European interests. They had to operate under tough pressure from the inside caused by the electoral consequences that the leading EU states encountered against the backdrop of numerous systemic crises in the last few years. No matter how important, symbolic or practical the last elections to the European Parliament might prove to be, the situation at the national level still matters more for the destiny of the great European project.
It is not surprising therefore, that strategically an inter-governmental approach to the appointment of major European bureaucrats ultimately prevailed over a pan-European approach. The result was a package deal for a group of Western European EU members, whereby the key positions were divided by France and Germany between themselves, whereas the others were occupied by the personalities suitable for the leaders of the driving entities. This is the completion of the system of leadership of the major EU countries, which took shape during the period of countering the crisis of the Euro zone in 2009-2015. And it’s growing stronger.
In the past few years the relative weakness of European institutions has been linked with the fact that they were headed by representatives from the second tier states (Luxembourg, Poland and Italy) whereas now Germany and France have put their direct representatives at the helm of the Commission, the Council and the European Central Bank. The representatives from the first tier obviously depended on their national leaders.
Another important result of the negotiating process in the last few weeks is the institutional and political defeat of the so-called “new Europe.” Its representatives did not receive a single high position in the EU. In the previous package the Eastern Europeans received the position of the President of the European Council, the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. In the past few weeks he has been diligently trying to emphasize his own major role in selecting nominees for the leading positions. In the 2019 institutional approach, the position of the President of the European Council is occupied by Prime Minister of Belgium Charles Michel. He cannot boast of serious electoral successes at home but this is fairly convenient for France and its president. From the viewpoint of the institutional balance of the European Council, his presidency is likely to focus primarily on the functions and tasks of the secretariat without trying to claim political leadership.
In general, the results of the bargaining that finished on Wednesday call into doubt the very notion of institutional balance in its traditional interpretation. The obvious decrease in the level of political autonomy of those that occupied leading EU positions radically shifts the center of gravity of the entire EU decision-making system towards the European Council, notably to a conference of the heads of state and government held behind the closed doors and without the involvement of such EU institutions as the commission or the parliament as relatively independent forces. The final decisions made it clear that political views are relegated to the background as compared with personal preferences. Many debates in the past few weeks were about the representation of particular parties in leading EU bodies; as a result the leaders supported the appointment of candidates that were not “theirs” by party affiliation but that suited them personally.
This fact attracts our attention to at least two fundamental problems in modern Europe. The first is the dependence of the EU’s legal capability on the personal qualities of the heads of the leading EU countries.
A bigger problem is the absence of a clear-cut requirement for a strong Europe on behalf of the people and the business community and also the depletion of a mechanism for making such a requirement. The historical breakthrough in European integration in the 1980s-1990s was prepared by a powerful wave of demands made by European companies and public organizations. The political elite of the EU countries would have hardly agreed to have their powers limited in favor of Brussels and accepted this only under pressure from below. This resulted in the adoption of breakthrough documents like the 1956 Single European Act (SEA) and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
There are no signs of this grassroots pressure now; Europeans are either satisfied with their positions or are looking for a solution at the national level. Historical experience shows that such solutions will not necessarily facilitate European unity. It will likely be the other way round. Hence, their destructive consequences may assume such a scale that it will no longer be possible to blame the erosion of European integration on the subversive activities of external forces, be it a “malicious” President Trump or a Russia that is always accused of causing Europe’s problems.