For many European citizens the most interesting issue right now is who will win the World Cup. Only a small minority will be following the debate about the Presidency of European Commission. But this is important because it goes to the heart of the way the EU takes decisions, the need to respect its rules, and the appropriate relationship between the nations of Europe and the EU institutions.
Voters sent a clear message at last month’s European elections. They are disillusioned with the way Europe is working. They are demanding change so it focuses on what they care about: growth and jobs. And they want the EU to help them, not dictate to them.
This was clear through the rise of anti-EU parties; the fall in turnout in the majority of countries and the decline in support for the European Parliament’s largest political groups.
The question now for Europe's leaders is: how do we respond to this message?
The results should be a wake-up call for leaders across Europe. The future of the European Union is at stake. It must either change or accept further decline.
Britain’s position is clear: we want the EU to succeed. To uphold liberty, peace and democracy across our continent and to spur prosperity. That is the central task of the European Union today. And that requires a more open, outward-looking, flexible and competitive EU. It also requires bold leadership – people ready to heed voters’ concerns and to confront the challenges that Europe faces.
The first test is the appointment of the next President of the European Commission.
Under the EU Treaties, ratified by national parliaments, it is for EU Heads of Government to propose the candidate to head the European Commission – albeit leaders should “take account” of the European elections. Then MEPs vote on this candidate in a secret ballot. That is the clear process, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, after a tortuous negotiation about the balance between nation states and the European Parliament.
But certain MEPs have invented a new process whereby they are trying to both choose and elect the candidate. Each of the main political groups ran “lead candidates” – so called Spitzenkandidaten – during the elections and did a back-room deal to join forces after the elections in support of the lead candidate of the party that won the most seats. This concept was never agreed by the European Council. It was not negotiated between the European institutions. And it was never ratified by national parliaments.
Yet, supporters of Spitzenkandidaten argue that the elections have happened, the people of Europe have chosen Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President and that it would be undemocratic for elected national leaders to choose anyone else.
It is not an attack on Mr Juncker, an experienced European politician, to say this is nonsense. Most Europeans did not vote in the European Parliament elections. Turnout declined in the majority of member states. Nowhere was Mr Juncker on the ballot paper. Even in Germany, where the concept of 'Spitzenkandidaten' got the most airtime, only 15% of voters even knew he was a candidate. He did not visit some Member States. Those who voted did so to choose their MEP not the Commission President. Mr Juncker did not stand anywhere and was not elected by anyone.
To accept such a claim would be deeply damaging for Europe and would undermine, rather than strengthen, the EU's democratic legitimacy.
It would shift power from national governments to the European Parliament without voters' approval. It would, in reality, prevent a serving Prime Minister or President from ever leading the European Commission - artificially restricting the pool of talent precisely when the EU needs to find the very best.
It would politicise the European Commission - a risk that Giscard d’Estaing warned of when the suggestion that MEPs should select the President of the Commission was rejected over a decade ago. He cautioned that it would make it difficult for the Commission “to embody impartiality and the common good of the Union”. It would imperil the Commission’s credibility in the exercise of its regulatory and dispute-resolution powers. And, most importantly, it would be a green light for those who want to breach the EU's rules by the backdoor. Rules that have been ratified by our national parliaments and laid down in international law. Whether you want more direct democracy in Europe or not, we should all be able to agree that first we must uphold the basic law.
Many people have deep misgivings about this whole approach, about a power grab through the backdoor. And we should not concede this issue when we know it will set a dangerous precedent for the future.
We must focus on finding the best candidate for Commission President. Someone who can deliver reform; driving growth and creating jobs; and accepting that Europe's needs may best be served by action at the national level. An honest and trusted broker able to re-engage Europe's voters.
Britain has a reputation for standing up for democracy and for fighting for our national interest. But this is about fighting for the European interest. And the three major UK political parties are united on this issue.
Now is the time for Europe's national leaders to have the courage of their convictions by standing up for their place in the EU and what is right for Europe’s future. Now is the time to propose a candidate who will convince Europe's voters we are acting upon their concerns.
Recent events remind us of the price European nations have paid in the struggle for our freedom and democracy. We have come a long way in the intervening decades, respecting our differences, following the rules, patiently charting our way forward together, in the European spirit. And at this important moment for Europe, it is the way we must continue to work.