This time… it could be different again!

This time… it could be different again!

Ross Creelman April 2019

Will the Spitzenkandidat system survive?

Ahead of the 2014 European elections, the European Parliament heralded in the dawn of a new way to elect the European Commission President, with the slogan “This time it’s different!” The ‘Spitzenkandidat’ (lead candidate) system was an attempt to introduce a greater semblance of democratic legitimacy to a European Union which was seen as distant, undemocratic, and doing too little, too late, when it came to solving crises.

The President of the European Commission has traditionally, as laid out in the Treaties, been chosen by the Council. However, the Lisbon Treaty introduced some new language into the procedure: “Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament… the European Council… shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission.”

2014: this time it’s different. The 2014 Elections were the first since the entry into force of Lisbon and the new “taking into account” clause – and what does “taking into account” mean, if not “the biggest party wins”? Choosing the President of the Commission still remains the purview of the European Council, but with the first say and final approval being the Parliament, the balance has shifted. Additionally, the European Parliament pushed for its task to change from “approve” to “elect”, implying an active, rather than passive role in the process.

Using their own internal procedures, in 2014 five European political parties have nominated their Spitzenkandidaten: Jean-Claude Juncker (Christian Democrat), Martin Schulz (Socialist), Guy Verhofstadt (Liberal), Ska Keller and José Bové (Greens) and Alexis Tsipras (Left). Following the elections, with the Christian Democratic EPP returning the most MEPs, Jean-Claude Juncker was installed as the President of the Commission. 

2019 and beyond. The process is not automatic: while the European Parliament and the European Commission have repeatedly expressed their support, opposition is emerging from numerous camps.

Member States resent that the Spitzenkandidaten process goes beyond the roles conferred to the European Parliament in the Treaties, whereas others worry that the process renders the Commission too political and weakens its role as a neutral arbiter and guardian of the Treaties. French President Emmanuel Macron opposes the procedure and has so far not affiliated his party, La République en Marche, with any European political party. He would prefer to see these candidates as the heads of pan-European, transnational lists.

Some European political parties are also concerned that if the Spitzenkandidat process is an automatic way for the largest party to become Commission President, the President will always be from the largest party, which, for many years has been the EPP. A hegemony could emerge, seeing political diversity in the Commission stifled. Working against this, the Liberal party, ALDE, has this time proposed not one Spitzenkandidat, but a seven-person Team Europe including Commissioners, MEPs and former Commissioners (the mechanics of this remain rather unclear).

It is also unclear how the procedure will unfold – will the Parliament expect the 2014 regime to be upheld? How will the Council wrest its power back from parliamentarians? In an election already saturated with major issues for debate, the uncertainty over the future of the Spitzenkandidat procedure only adds to the confusion.