Sir Julian Priestley, Secretary-General of the European Parliament 1997-2007


The European project has always been one of enlightened self-interest. It progresses when statesmen show strategic political vision, rather than succumb to short-termism and probably short-lived advantage. In the aftermath of war, France and Germany had every reason to share sovereignty in certain limited areas, economic, strategic, and political. Benelux countries had suffered disproportionately as theatres of two global conflicts in the space of thirty years. The creation of the then European community was the appropriate response to the challenges of removing the likelihood of future conflicts within Europe and creating the conditions for its future prosperity.

Today the European Union faces similar challenges where pragmatic cooperation through sturdy institutions is the only efficient way of taking action. The crisis in Ukraine, the catastrophe in Gaza, demonstrate how even our largest member states would be impotent in having a positive impact in conflicts in regions in our neighbourhood. Even a British government feels impelled to call for stronger European action in Ukraine. These crises also demonstrate the difficulties in reaching common positions in a Union with 28 members, but show that, individually, member states would be powerless. And the recent successes of EU diplomacy in both Serbia/Kosovo and over Iran’s nuclear development prove the peace dividend of patient, successful European cooperation.

In a different register, the need for managed steps towards creating a new trading framework between the EU and the US, or with China, or with Japan is a further sign that our member states would be poorly placed in trying to reach favourable commercial conditions if they were competing with each other in trade negotiations with our economic superpower partners. The digital revolution which if not navigated carefully could create both a jobs blight and the increasing domination of industries of the future by non-European competitors is yet another reason why collective action by the EU is not some idealistic reverie but the hard-headed pragmatic approach.

Are the most recent European elections a sign that there is now a deadly threat to this cooperative venture? The unparalleled success of populist eurosceptic or Europhobic parties in some member states has to be taken seriously. But exaggerating the challenge is not the answer. The progress of anti-European forces after or during an unprecedented financial, economic and social crisis was patchy.  In some countries among the worst hit by the recession, like Spain, the pro-European parties continue to dominate.  Elsewhere, in the Netherlands, for example, the anti-Europeans have peaked. These movements are never likely to coalesce to form a coherent bloc in the EP, creating a threat to its capacity to conduct business. Their past record is one of intermittent attendance peppered with occasional stunts, rather than serious political work in an institution where only assiduity and cooperation with other political forces can bring results.

And it is apparent that the most spectacular successes of the extreme Europhobes, in the UK and in France are more easily attributable to particular problems of political credibility in mainstream national parties.

The European elections in May were important for two other reasons. They were the first since 1979 when turn-out did not actually fall. A modest increase in numbers voting, particularly in the older member states, was the first ever.

Secondly, the election and its aftermath have changed the balance of power between the institutions. This was the first election when the European political parties named in advance their candidate for the presidency of the Commission (the so-called spitzenkandidaten) following the provisions in the Lisbon Treaty which give to the Parliament, more clearly than in the past, the decisive role in appointing Europe’s chief executive and establish an explicit link between the nomination and the election results.

When the parties nominated their candidates there were many commentators in the media and national politicians who doubted whether this new procedure would ever be accepted by heads of government so used to making these decisions themselves and behind closed doors. But so many of the governments and their leaders had participated in the selection of the presidential candidates by their respective European parties and had campaigned for them that it became unthinkable for them to turn to other names after the electorate had been so clearly led to believe that they were also voting for the Commission presidency.

After the elections gave a clear plurality (in seats, if not in votes) to the European people’s party candidate, Mr Juncker, he had arduous negotiations with party groupings in the EP to obtain the majority of MEPs necessary to guarantee his election. Heads of governments at times seemed almost by-standers in the process.

These elections change things. For the first time the elector can see that his or her vote can make a difference in choosing the person for the top job in Europe. And because of the closer link between the executive and Parliament, the Juncker Commission will be inevitably responsive to the MEPs and will have a relationship not dissimilar to that between national parliaments and their respective governments. Juncker and the political leadership have had to constitute a parliamentary majority for the executive, based on an agreement not just about persons but also policies.

This parliamentarisation of the EU is a significant step in addressing what people like to call the democratic deficit but which is in fact a participation deficit, a feeling that people have no influence in the EC.

The first attempt at a presidential election was flawed. The European parties were fighting their campaigns on a shoe-string. Getting the message across that if people wanted to support Juncker, Schulz or the others, they had to vote for their respective national parties was an uphill struggle; the debates between the candidates sometimes seemed bloodless affairs, with the policy differences between them too difficult to identify. There will be many lessons to learn to make the 2019 elections a more wholehearted vigorous competition between different visions of Europe. But it was a start?

And the controversy surrounding Juncker after the elections has added to a sense that the new process is a significant change for the EU. That controversy stemmed from the UK government’s hostility in general to the spitzenkandidaten process, and to Juncker in particular. It followed from the EP elections in the UK where the lead candidates chosen by the European parties played no part, where the debate was not about competing visions of Europe but about whether the UK should stay in the EU at all.

The manner in which the UK government opposed Juncker’s nomination undoubtedly further alienated Britain’s friends, including leaders in other EU countries who support the UK reform agenda. But that reform shopping list is at present an unfinished sketch. People will listen to the UK demands when they are formulated but there will not be sufficient support for the generalised repatriation of powers to member states (sought by many Conservatives) because such a move would ultimately undermine the single market and weaken support for some of the key achievements of the Union in promoting high social and economic standards.

To date, UKIP and the eurosceptics have had an easy ride in the British media, in part because of the reluctance of mainstream parties to challenge them on what are seen as toxic issues of membership of the EU and free movement. As the general election in the UK approaches, it should be the case that UKIP and its policies and assertions are subjected to more rigorous scrutiny. Failure to confront the Farage fallacies could leave the UK closer to the exit door, with disastrous consequences for the UK, for its closest neighbours and trading partners and for the standing and the credibility of the European project.



Sir Julian Priestley was Secretary General of the European Parliament from 1997 to 2007. His book (co-authored with Nereo Peñalver Garcia), ‘The Making of a European president, 2014’ will be published by Macmillan Palgrave in the New Year


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