by Neil Madden
STRASBOURG, May 28 (Xinhua) - - Who will become the next president of the European Commission (EC) remains up in the air following this week's informal meeting of the European Council.
It emerged Wednesday that some EU heads of government are underwhelmed by the 'spitzenkandidaten' (front runners) put forward by the political parties of the European Parliament (EP), including the leading candidate, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mr. Juncker is the candidate of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which will hold the largest number of seats in the new EP (213), and was widely touted as the man to replace outgoing EC president Jose Manuel Barroso. Yet, British Prime Minister David Cameron remains opposed to Mr. Juncker's candidature, as do some other leaders.
Following the European Council meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also appeared to distance herself from Mr. Juncker. Merkel did not rule him out as a candidate, but was firm in asserting that who gets the most important post in the EC should not be decided in a rush. Above all, she maintained that at such a critical juncture in the EU's history it was even more important to follow the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty.
This states that the European Council must "take into account" the EP elections. However, it is not obligated to choose a candidate from the EP's political groupings. It could, for example, still propose an outsider. Possible alternatives to the EP spitzenkandidaten that have been aired include Christine Lagarde, currently president of the IMF, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny (although he has publicly backed Mr. Juncker), Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister.
Merkel's stance appears to be something of a victory for Mr. Cameron, now under intense pressure at home following the stunning result of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), which won the most votes (26.77 percent) in the British poll.
It is no secret that Mr. Cameron regards Mr. Juncker and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) candidate, the German Martin Schulz, as arch federalists. On his arrival in Brussels, Mr. Cameron said people running the EU institutions should "really understand" that they need to cede power to national capitals, so as to "build a Europe that is about openness, competitiveness and flexibility, and not about the past."
The agony within the European Council follows the momentous results of this weekend's European elections in which eurosceptic parties of the far right and far left made significant strides in a number of EU countries.
This has led to calls for a radical rethinking of the relationship between the European institutions and member states, particularly from those national leaders most impacted by the voting within their countries, notably Mr. Cameron and France's President Francois Hollande.
From this perspective Mr. Juncker looks too much like business as usual; a steady progress towards greater European integration which evidently scares a significant minority of the EU citizens who cast their votes last weekend.
On the other hand members of the EP (MEPs) can point to the fact that 70 percent of those who voted cast their ballots for parties that are solidly pro-EU. And counting in parties that basically support the EU - even if they are occasionally truculent about it - that figure rises to well over 80 percent.
Before Chancellor Merkel's comments to the press, the EP Conference of Presidents, which groups the heads of the different political parties in the parliament, sent a letter to the European Council calling on it to give Mr. Juncker "a clear mandate" to start negotiations with other political groups in the EP.
Hannes Swoboda, president of the S&D, said: "This is not the time for European Council navel-gazing, but the time to give pro-European forces a chance to respond to voters' concerns through a detailed work program for the next five years. The EPP remains the largest group in the parliament. Its candidate for (EC) president therefore has the clear right to start negotiations to seek a majority."
However, the heads of state obviously think differently about that "clear right". They have mandated Council president Herman van Rompuy to open negotiations with the incoming parliament to find a candidate who can win over a majority of MEPs, but it is clear that Mr. van Rompuy has some tough weeks ahead of him.