By Peter Müller
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Parliament President Martin Schulz entered office pledging to make the European Union more democratic. Now, the two appear more worried about helping each other keep their jobs.
Each month, European Union leaders get together for a working dinner to discuss pressing issues facing the continent. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is there, as is Parliament President Martin Schulz, Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, Manfred Weber, the floor leader of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), and others. But before those present can tuck into their meals, they are forced to wait on Juncker and Schulz: Prior to the dinner, the two of them retreat to a back room to coordinate their positions on the most important questions.
According to the rules of democracy, the parliament’s job is to exert control over the executive branch — which, in the case of the EU, is the European Commission. But Schulz and Juncker are bending those rules. When asked what the two discuss in private, Juncker is flippant: “Everyone wants to know that we talk about,” he says. “The truth is, we are telling each other the latest jokes.”
Juncker, from Luxembourg, and Schulz, from Germany, have been involved in European politics for years and have known each other for more than two decades. In the spring 2014 European elections, they campaigned against each other: Juncker as lead candidate for the EPP and Schulz for the Social Democrats.
But the campaign did not result in acrimony between the two. On the contrary, it brought them even closer together. Their joint adversaries were the European heads of state and government, from whom Juncker and Schulz wanted to wrest more power for Brussels. Never before had the largest European political parties entered the campaign with lead candidates, with the victor to become president of the European Commission. To their credit, it was an audacious move.
When the election was over, the defeated Schulz ensured that Juncker would have sufficient backing in European Parliament to be elected Commission president. In exchange, Juncker sought to get Schulz a spot on the Commission. When that failed, though, Schulz was allowed to carry on as president of the European Parliament, a position he had held since 2012. The only condition was that he step down at the beginning of 2017 to make way for a conservative to assume the role.
A Brazen Caper
But now, Schulz and Juncker have become so comfortable with their symbiosis that Schulz isn’t of a mind to fulfill his pledge. For months, a campaign has been underway in Europe that has but a single goal: That of ensuring Schulz’s re-election as president of parliament.
It is a rather brazen caper. When Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker campaigned across the continent in spring 2014, they promised to bring more light into the darkness of Brussel bureaucracy. “This is a democratic revolution,” Schulz said at the time. But now that one of them is supposed to step down, the speeches of old seem no longer to apply.
Juncker and Schulz, who have often complained about dark-room deal-making by European heads of state and government, are now making such deals themselves. They have made a pact that seems primarily aimed at ensuring each other’s power. “This kind of backscratching is harmful to Europe,” says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a European parliamentarian from the business friendly Free Democrats. “It demonstrates that the parliament isn’t interested in controlling the Commission to the degree necessary.”
Schulz ensures that the Commission president, plagued by affairs as he is, doesn’t have to face questions that are too uncomfortable. In return, Juncker is organizing a campaign for the re-election of his friend Schulz and does what he can to spare him from nasty headlines.
A few weeks ago, the Commission president took EPP floor leader Weber aside to discuss an uncomfortable story stemming from the 2014 campaign. At the time, Schulz had a Twitter account that he used as president of parliament — a platform that he then began using as a campaign tool as lead candidate for the Social Democrats. He took his 80,000 followers with him. The Budgetary Control Committee in European Parliament sought to reprimand him for the lapse and had prepared the necessary documents to do so.
‘I Think I Won’
As committee members were preparing to approve the document, EPP floor leader Weber asked them into his office. “We have to talk,” he said, and told the astonished representatives that Juncker had spoken to him. Juncker of course emphasized that they had the freedom to compose the reprimand as they liked, Weber told them. But he would ask that the “overriding political circumstances” be kept in mind. The committee members understood the message and rewrote the document. When asked about the incident, the Commission said it “had nothing to do with this internal parliamentary process.”
The deal between Juncker and Schulz goes back to the night of the European elections, May 25, 2014. The European People’s Party received 29.4 percent of the seats in parliament while the Social Democrats managed 25.4 percent. At 1:15 a.m., Juncker visited his friend Schulz in his office. Schulz had champagne brought in and Juncker said: “I think I won.” By the end of their meeting, they had agreed that their parties would form a coalition together and they promised not to be too hard on each other.
It soon became clear just how resilient the alliance was. In fall 2014, it was revealed that the Luxembourg government, back when it was led by Prime Minister Juncker, had granted generous tax breaks to companies like Amazon and IKEA — to the detriment of Luxembourg’s European neighbors. It was a scandal that had the potential of ending in Juncker’s resignation.
Close to 200 parliamentarians, including several conservatives and Social Democrats, insisted on the creation of a committee of inquiry. But Schulz staved off the danger. Armed with a legal opinion, he reached the conclusion that responsibility for looking into tax loopholes in Luxembourg had to be given to a special committee. Conveniently, special committees under European law do not have the same formal powers as do committees of inquiry — and Juncker was out of danger.
Schulz is even prepared to intervene in instances when the Commission cannot be sure of enjoying majority support in parliament. In June 2015, he delayed an approaching parliamentary vote on the Commission’s negotiating mandate for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). He claimed that the delay was necessary because of the numerous amendment requests, but in actuality, the majority of Social Democrats were unprepared to support the resolution at the time. The Green Party in Brussels complained of “wretched trickery.”
Schulz does indeed have his very own interpretation of the office he holds. Normally, parliamentary presidents are responsible for ensuring the efficient functioning of parliament and they avoid getting involved in day-to-day politics. But Schulz is not a fan of such reserve. He changes hats depending on his mood and the political season — from Social Democratic campaigner to EU top diplomat to Juncker’s first line of defense.
Schulz and Juncker are united in their conviction that European institutions must be strengthened. Even Schulz’s opponents concede that there has never before been a president of parliament who has so unceasingly worked toward improving the EU. And European Parliament has, of course, been a beneficiary. But debate is the lifeblood of democracy — and under the leadership of Schulz and Juncker, a malady that has long afflicted the European Parliament has intensified.
The dividing line in parliament doesn’t run between left and right as much as it does between those in favor of the EU and those who radically reject the union. Currently, euroskeptic parties now make up 20 percent of the representatives and many of them would like to simply do away with the EU. As their attacks on the EU have become stronger, establishment parties have increasingly closed ranks. That, though, reinforces the widespread impression that important decisions in Brussels are made in smoky backrooms, an impression symbolized for many by Juncker and Schulz.
A Slew of Arguments
It would actually be EPP floor leader Weber’s job to prevent an extension of Schulz’s term in office. He keeps Schulz’s written commitment to vacate his office at the beginning of 2017 in his safe. But in early September, Juncker and Schulz invited Weber to lunch at the European Commission and petitioned Weber to prevent the EPP from advancing a rival candidate for the position. They bombarded Weber with a slew of arguments as to why Schulz is irreplaceable. They spoke of “coalition stability” and of “continuity in the face of crisis.” Plus, Schulz says, it wouldn’t be fair were the EPP to hold the third top EU office in addition to European Commission President Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.
Schulz’s strategy is that of driving a wedge in the EPP parliamentary group and he has Juncker’s support. Weber likewise doesn’t find all of the pair’s arguments to be unconvincing, even if he doesn’t admit as much publicly. That’s why Schulz doesn’t miss an opportunity to prove his usefulness to the conservatives.
At the beginning of June, the Spanish commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, likewise an EPP member, was facing a parliamentary hearing. There were plenty of questions to ask the commissioner: His wife’s name appeared in the Panama Papers and he too stood under suspicions of corruption back home. But parliamentary elections were approaching in Spain and the EPP wanted to avoid a public spectacle.
The Social Democrat Schulz was happy to help: Arias Canete’s hearing was transferred to the Legal Affairs Committee. The committee’s hearings are not open to the public and, even better, its next sitting was scheduled for after the June 26 general election in Spain.
Schulz hopes that the EPP won’t be able to find a compelling candidate to succeed him. From the German perspective, it would make sense if floor leader Weber was to throw his hat into the ring. But he has declined. His career in Brussels has started well and he isn’t interested in taking a job in the spotlight.
Across the Tiber in a Maserati
It currently looks as though the decision will be between Antonio Tajani, an old pal of ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the relatively unknown Irin Mairead McGuinness. Last Wednesday, the party group managed to agree on a timeline for the selection of its candidate. In early October, Juncker plans to speak to parliamentarians about the choice facing them.
Schulz is annoyed by the small-minded party strategists who don’t seem to recognize the damage they would do to Europe by pushing him out of office. But his love for Europe isn’t quite so great that he would be prepared to take a seat in European Parliament as a simple representative. The Social Democrats in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia have already offered him the top spot on their list for next year’s federal parliamentary elections in Germany should he not be able to stay on as president of European Parliament.
In early May, Schulz and Juncker traveled together to Rome for the awarding of the prestigious Charlemagne Prize to Pope Francis. After the ceremony, the two rode the elevator together in the Hotel Paolo VI, located across from the Vatican. As Schulz and Juncker left the tight elevator, they began talking about whether they should fly back to Brussels directly in their chartered plane or whether they should make a brief stop at a reception they had been invited to at Germany’s embassy in the Vatican.
Schulz sought to convince his friend to go to the garden reception: “You have to eat something,” he said caringly to the Commission president. Juncker allowed himself to be convinced and the two headed across the Tiber in a Maserati.
In total, the pair spent two days together in the city. During a podium discussion at the Musei Capitolini, they praised the “lead candidate” model they had introduced as the pinnacle of European democracy. During the discussion, they were asked if European leaders would ever be successful in jettisoning the model. Schulz shook his head energetically. When a parliament succeeds in securing greater powers, it won’t allow those powers to be taken from it, he said.
The same might be said about Schulz and the office he holds.