This week's likely anointing of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission would follow standard operating procedure in the European Union. After recent Europe-wide elections in which parties campaigning against the very idea of the EU did well, that isn't acceptable.
In one way, Juncker has impeccable credentials for the top job in the EU's increasingly powerful executive branch. As prime minister of Luxembourg for almost 20 years, he helped build today's EU. He co-founded the euro currency project, and led the euro area's finance ministers at the height of the financial crisis.
The trouble is, the EU he helped to fashion needs to change. Juncker seems singularly ill-suited to that challenge.
Why then is he favored to get the job? This year, for the first time, the EU's parliament is claiming the right to name the commission president, and the largest grouping of parties has backed Juncker. They agree with him that EU institutions, especially their own, should be given more power. The parliament's claim over this appointment is dubious -- but if the national leaders reject Juncker, as they are strictly entitled to, there'll be a showdown. Few EU governments want Juncker in the job, but even fewer are willing to fight over it.
What else is new? The EU has always grown -- for better and worse -- in fits and starts that its institutions then parlayed into lasting assumptions of power. The financial crisis, a recovery unworthy of the name and elections that delivered what should have been a shocking rebuke to those in charge apparently haven't upset the pattern.
Juncker wasn't on the ballot for the European Parliament election last month, but a lot of anti-federalist, anti-EU parties were -- and they drew more votes than ever before. Juncker stands for the kind of Europe those voters rejected. Putting him in charge of the European Commission would confirm their fears. It would be a step back for European democracy, not forward as his advocates claim.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's quixotic campaign to stop Juncker therefore has the virtue of being right. But Cameron is snarled in a web of earlier misjudgments: He committed himself to hold a referendum by 2017 on whether the U.K. should leave the union, and removed his Conservative Party from the parliamentary alliance that chose Juncker. Thanks to these choices, his opposition is dismissed as just another obstructive demand from the U.K., rather than an argument -- and a good one -- about what's best for the EU.
Cameron's humiliation at this week's summit (in Ypres, for good measure, the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War) would feed British disenchantment with the European project. That's something no one in the union should want, least of all German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She and Cameron are natural allies on many aspects of EU economic policy. And if the U.K. were indeed to leave the EU, Germany's dominance would be all the more obtrusive -- which Merkel knows would be bad for Germany.
This week, the EU's 28 leaders should break with business as usual. The European Commission does need limited new powers to strengthen the euro system and develop the union's single market -- but in many other areas, federalists such as Juncker have far outpaced the readiness of voters to see themselves as Europeans first, rather than as Britons or Frenchmen or Germans. The European Parliament is attempting, at a stroke, a new grab for power and the installation of a bad candidate to lead the European Commission. Europe's governments should say no to both.
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