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Finding Consensus in Fragmentation: The Scramble for the EU’s Top Jobs

A Game of Musical Chairs

Main Meeting Room in the Europa Building

Yesterday’s European Council Summit was derailed even before it started with leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP) rejecting the “Osaka Deal” that would have had Frans Timmermans installed as President of the European Commission, while EPP would have been left with the Parliament and, possibly, the High Representative for Foreign Policy.

The failure of EUCO to allocate the EU’s top jobs, as well as the Parliament’s presumed inability to form a majority beyond S&D and EPP, speaks volumes about the political and institutional division inside the EU. When it comes to democratic legitimacy, one also has to wonder why we rely on such arcane methods for reaching consensus even after achieving the highest turnout for EU Parliament elections in more than two decades. The EU’s own “Papal Conclave” is more divided than ever over picking the new leadership. French president Emmanuel Macron is right in pointing out the flaws in the EU’s decision-making processes. A parade of our division along lines of caste, creed, and culture is not the best way to portray a strong and united Europe.

Decision-Making and Disarray

Besides the flaws in the decision-making mechanisms of the EU, the deadlock also reflects the political struggle of the main groups in the European Parliament after losing majority for the first time ever and the weakening of the Franco-German tandem in determining European Affairs. If EU leaders fail to reach consensus today it would mean that the Parliament has to move on and choose its President tomorrow and form a political majority. This would constrain the Council at a future summit. Greece is also set to hold an election this Sunday, which Syriza is set to lose. This would ever so slightly shift the balance in favour of EPP as the Greek New Democracy Party, which is a member of the EPP, is currently leading in the polls.  This is the reason Merkel, Macron, and Tusk have been so determined to reach an agreement during, and even before, yesterday’s summit.

Both Macron and Portuguese PM, Antonio Costa, blamed the deadlock on the “personal ambitions” of some European leaders and the “hidden agendas” of those who “want to divide Europe”. However, the problems with the EU’s decision-making processes run deeper than that and are rooted in the tension between intergovernmentalism and the role of supranational institutions, as well as the lack of political integration. Allocating the leadership position is done via Reinforced Qualified Majority Voting (QMV), meaning that it is easier for small groups of actors to hold others hostage in the current framework. A qualified majority is reached under two conditions, when 55% of member states vote in favour of a proposal and that proposal is supported by member states representing 65% of total EU population. Reinforced QMV, on the other hand, requires a 72% agreement. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not be satisfied with a deal that would only achieve this bare minimum majority.

Reaching an agreement at this point is a matter of finding consensus in fragmentation. Many of the present difficulties in reaching a consensus originate in the collective action problems that derive from way in which decision-making is structured in the EU. When Member States are unable to reach an agreement via collective decision-making with each other and in cooperation with the various institutions and groups operating at the EU level, coalitions with various interests start forming outside the common framework. There’s also no shortage of veto points as no single political force or group has the power to dominate the discussion right now. Seeking to gain the upper hand, rather than cooperation, seems to be the norm. It doesn’t help that the EU is divided along national, political, and institutional lines. A proposal has to meet the criteria set by each line of division. An agreement that satisfies most member states might still be divisive amongst political families and something that seems reasonable to the Council might not seem so to the Parliament.

The Need For Reform

Fragmentation is not the only thing plaguing decision-making in the EU. Many important policy matters still require unanimity, severely slowing down our capacity to respond to both global and internal challenges.  Policy areas that still require unanimity include the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the Multiannual Financial Framework (EU Budget), the harmonisation of national legislation on matters of social policy, matters of EU Accession, and EU Tax Policy.

The failure to agree on the division of top position was not the only one recently. Only last week leaders failed to take a decision on a plan to decarbonise the EU by 2050 as it required unanimous support, thus making it easier for one state to hold others hostage. It’s clear the EU requires an overhaul of its decision-making mechanisms and calls for reform are nothing new. Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs Pierre Moscovici and President Jean-Claude Juncker have already called for transition to more efficient decision-making process in EU tax policy from unanimity to QMV and a stronger role for the European Parliament in matters of taxation.

The way things are set up at the moment we can expect the relative strength of each state and/or group to determine the outcome of important decisions in the EU until we finally come together in order to find common solutions for the common good. Until then the Council has to reconvene in just a few hours in order to finalise the agreement on the EU’s top jobs. Any disagreement today will have a profound impact on the final outcome as the Parliament will push ahead with electing its new president tomorrow regardless of whether or not an agreement is reached today.

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