Germany and Britain are set to clash over the presidency of the European Commission at a summit next week in Ypres, the same Belgian town where the two countries waged a bloody battle during World War I. As in that war, which merely led to another, there will be no true winners.
Despite the vehement opposition of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Germany is likely to secure the job for former Luxembourgian Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. This is unfortunate, because Juncker's vision of a deeper European Union is dangerously out of sync with that of some of its most important members. Appointing him as head of the EC after a European Parliament election that saw anti-union candidates win big in the U.K., France, the Netherlands and Austria -- all net donors of funds to the EU -- means ignoring the causes of that electoral phenomenon.
The EC president serves as a de-facto prime minister running what would be a cabinet if the EU were a state. Albeit limited to certain areas, the cabinet's powers make the president a powerful political figure.
Cameron's concerns about choosing Juncker for the role are well founded: Though the Luxembourgian revels in his reputation as a master of compromise, he is actually too dogmatic to recognize that the union may fail if it doesn't show more flexibility. A founding father of the euro project, Juncker has consistently advocated giving the EU more powers at the expense of member states, including in areas such as tax policy, which are now outside the union's purview. He tends to see the flaws in the union as a result of too much national autonomy. In a recent interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, he said the EU's high unemployment was "solely the result of national policy, which has led to this rescue policy."
Given his faith in centralized government, Juncker is highly unlikely to do much about the glaring inefficiencies in the EU budget. More than 40 percent is spent on agricultural aid programs beloved of Juncker, who points out that the sector employs 30 million people throughout Europe, apparently oblivious that this comprises only about 6 percent of the EU's total population. The $11.3 billion the EU plans to spend on administration this year also isn't likely to shrink much under the veteran eurocrat.
Juncker enjoys the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel largely thanks to an accident of politics. The European Parliament's former speaker, Martin Schulz, a German Social-Democrat, last year put forward the idea that the biggest political party in the parliament name its candidate for the union's top executive job. The green and liberal parties liked the idea and selected candidates. The center-right European People's Party, of which Merkel's Christian Democrats are members, grudgingly followed suit by choosing Juncker. Since it is now the biggest party in the European Parliament, its candidate is the top choice. Juncker is not really a Merkel ally: He is, for example, a strong advocate of a high minimum wage, a position advocated by the Social Democrats, who are Merkel's political rivals (and current coalition partners).
The EU needs leaders capable of rethinking the way the bloc has been governed and looking for ways to make EU donors, such as the U.K., feel good about backing the bloc financially. The fact that the EU keeps the peace in Europe -- which Juncker uses every chance to point out -- is important but insufficient. Juncker's appointment, like the allies' victory in World War I, doesn't resolve the conflict. It will only flare up more forcefully later. The political logic that is making Juncker's appointment inevitable is a nearsighted one: It would be better for Merkel to appear undemocratic and admit she would prefer a more flexible and imaginative figure at the head of the EC.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com
To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at firstname.lastname@example.org