Who Won Europe?

BRUSSELS – The fight over who will be the European Commission’s next president is heating up. Several European Union leaders were recently spotted in a small rowboat on a Swedish lake, reportedly scheming against the frontrunner, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has launched a public campaign to reassert the right of EU member states’ governments to decide who will occupy the EU’s executive arm.

The process of choosing the Commission’s president appears to be a conflict between the voice of the people, as expressed in the results of last month’s European Parliament election, and backroom deal-making by governments. But reality is more complex, and the genuine democratic mandate did not go to the person who claims to have “won” the election.

In the run-up to the election, the major European party “families” (there are no pan-European parties, only loose alliances of national parties) each nominated a Spitzenkandidat as their choice for President of the European Commission. The center-right European People’s Party, which gained a narrow plurality of 221 seats in the 751-seat parliament, has claimed victory in the election; and many others, including socialists, greens, and liberals, concur that the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, has a moral right to be selected as President of the Commission.

In fact, though the EPP won 29% of the seats, versus 24% for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the S&D can claim victory. After all, its affiliated parties at the national level won a greater number of votes – a combined total of 40 million, compared to 39.9 million for parties affiliated with the EPP. The difference is small, but there can be no doubt that the S&D won the popular vote (24.4% to 23.8%).