Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Non-Confidence Vote Against Juncker's Commission - Great Interest but not Interesting

Adelina Marini, November 25, 2014

The first one hundred days not having passed yet and the first political European Commission was subjected to a non-confidence vote because of its President Jean-Claude Juncker - a former prime minister and minister of finance of Luxembourg several terms in a row - who is deemed responsible for the Lux Leaks affair which euinside wrote in detail about. 76 MEPs from Nigel Farage's group Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and non-attached members, led by Marine le Pen demanded the non-confidence vote on the basis of the directive on the common system of taxation of parent companies and subsidiaries from various member states, the European Parliament's calls to fight tax fraud and tax evasion, the agreement of the G20 ministers of finance from last year on new measures to fight the avoidance of corporate taxation, and the founding treaties of the EU.

In the motives it is pointed out that as a result of the aggressive schemes for avoiding corporate taxation in Luxembourg, applied during the period when Jean-Claude Juncker was a prime minister, the member states lost potential tax revenues worth billions of euro. According to the authors, it is unacceptable a person who is responsible for such practises to hold the post of a president of the European Commission. Hence the non-confidence vote. Nigel Farage's group consists of mainly members of his United Kingdom Independence Pary (UKIP) and the representatives of Beppe Grillo's anti-system movement "Five Stars" in Italy. The motion was joined also by non-attached MEPs, representatives of eurosceptic parties like Marine le Pen's National Front and Geert Wilders's nationalistic party in the Netherlands.

The motion of censure was put on the agenda of the November plenary session of the European Parliament and practically opened it. At five o'clock in the afternoon on Monday, Jean-Claude Juncker appeared in an almost full house together with all members of the College except Guenter Oettinger. This was one of the much awaited events because, for the first time, a Commission is under suspicion so early in its term - the very first days after its election. In the EU, there is a precedent already with a taking a Commission down - that of Jacques Santer (also a former prime minister of Luxembourg and former minister of finance) - which resigned on corruption charges in 1999. The "Juncker" case, however, is different and much more complicated.

After the scandal broke out, Juncker has chosen a convenient thesis to defend, namely that nothing illegal has been done and those were practises which are on the brink of morale but are being applied in many other member states. That is why, instead of giving further explanations about his role, he focused in all his public appearances on his intention to fight for tax harmonisation, emphasising, in the same time, that he is a supporter of fair tax competition. Juncker appeared at a special hearing in the European Parliament where he presented his thesis in details and his views, but some MEPs remained unconvinced. Nevertheless, on the eve of the vote, the traditional political groups firmly supported the Commission.

The debate began with a brief statement of the author of the non-confidence motion Marco Zanni (EFDD), according to whom Juncker is not on the side of the European citizens but on the side of the big capital. Mr Zanni even accused Juncker of having practically stolen millions of euros of potential revenues. He urged the group of Greens to finally decide which side they are on - with the grand coalition or "with us for a change of Europe". In the very beginning of the debate, it was evident that the big media interest was in vain. The discussion turned into the first big exchange of fire between the pro-European forces and the eurosceptics. A battle which, though small in scale and relatively weak, reveals the potential of the eurosceptic movement in Europe if it continues to expand. To topple the Commission are needed two thirds of the votes. The voting will be on Thursday, but four of the mainstream political groups stated firmly their intention to vote against the motion which forms a clear majority. Unclear remained the position of the Conservatives (ECR).

Quite expectedly, the leader of the EPP group Manfred Weber stated the group's full support for the Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker belongs to the EPP family). If in his previous appearance in the European Parliament during the mini plenary session earlier this month, the debate was on the substance, this time the leaders of political groups and individual MEPs focused on mutual attacks. Manfred Weber recalled that the taxation policy is in the hands of the sovereign member states and not the European bureaucrats and he accused directly Farage and Le Pen for Europe's unresolved problems. He omitted to mention, though, that the lucrative taxation arrangements happened at the time when Juncker was not a "European bureaucrat" but a prime minister of the "sovereign state" of Luxembourg. Gianni Pittella, the leader of the group of Socialists and Democrats, focused in his statement on what would happen if the Commission were to be rejected. The biggest problem is that the adoption of the 300 billion euros investment package will be delayed.

This is a central priority for Juncker's Commission and the European Parliament and is awaited impatiently in the EU. The formal presentation is expected during this plenary session (details later). He drew a very black picture of a new continuous process of selection of a new College of commissioners. The third largest group in the European Parliament - the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) - was not quite sure what position it should take. On behalf of the group spoke Polish MEP Ryszard Legutko who said that the Lux Leaks case is definitely a problem and that Jean-Claude Juncker failed to perform confidently during his hearings. According to Legutko, Lux Leaks is a stain that will chase Juncker till the end of his term. He also said that Juncker cannot investigate his own self. The investigation should be done by someone else, Mr Legutko concluded.

Guy Verhofstadt blew up the atmosphere by attacking harshly the EFDD quoting the criticism of UKIP's founder Alan Sked. Recently, Mr Sked said that the party had turned into the Frankenstein monster - a xenophobic and racist party. Verhofstadt also attacked Marine le Pen. But neither she nor Farage's MEPs paid attention to the fact that the former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the ALDE group was in fact quoting. A British member of the European parliament quoted the rule book of the European Parliament and asked why President Martin Schulz had not punished Guy Verhofstadt for insulting a colleague. Mr Schulz reminded him that Verhofstadt was actually quoting someone else's opinion, not giving his own. Verhofstadt also said that the motion of censure actually revealed the hidden relations between Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen. After the elections, the two held several rounds of negotiations to form a common group but they failed and currently Marine le Pen is a non-attached member.

The United Left confirmed that it, too, will not support the non-confidence vote but underscored that the "Juncker" problem existed and could not be denied. Marine le Pen, too, joined the debate. After a continuous return of fire toward Mr Verhofstadt she said that the Lux Leaks was actually a conspiracy between multinational companies and Luxembourg. In the end of the debate Juncker again took the floor saying that he did not invent the "Juncker scheme" and reiterated that it is applied in many member states but one of the EFDD deputies - Stephen Woolfe (UK) - disagreed pointing out that he could not see any other member state to have sheltered hundreds of multinational companies. Juncker also urged to be trusted that he will implement all his commitments made in front of the European Parliament because, in his words, he was addressing the European Parliament. He thus suggested that this institution deserves huge respect and it cannot be lied to.

Juncker asked the MEPs to leave the commissioners alone. In the end of the day, all the allegations are addressed to me only. If someone is to leave that should be me, he said in defence of his Commission. The debate lasted a little bit over an hour but was disappointing and irresolute. One of the demands of some groups - the Liberals and the Greens - a special enquiry committee to be established in the European Parliament - cannot be realised in practise because there is no legal foundation for it. There is no data for a committed crime at this stage and the investigation of the Commission, led by the competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, is still ongoing. The non-confidence vote will be voted on Thursday, but it is clear from now that it has no chance to pass. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see in which political groups there will be "rebels" (who voted against the group position).

The mainstream political groups appeared too unprepared to react in such a battle. A battle which forebodes many other during this term and for sure Jean-Claude Juncker will provide occasions, at least because of his promise to create the first political Commission. The main political groups perceive their domination for granted, refusing to apprehend the reality that the rise of the eurosceptic, xenophobic and nationalistic parties continues and unless adequate measures are taken they might be dominating the next European Parliament. This is a huge problem because, generally, this type of parties do not offer an alternative. They are simply against - everything and everyone. They bring scandal along whenever they go and this is what media like. This is precisely where the mainstream parties are failing. During the debate on Monday evening, they reaffirmed the impression that a grand deal had been reached for this term. There would not have been anything wrong with this if there was a cause that is worth it. However, they have been failing lately to show that there is a cause worth fighting for.