Should the Spitzenkandidat system survive next year’s elections?

After five of the most tumultuous years in the history of the European Union, in which the bloc struggled to hold itself together, a new crop of leaders is set to take office next year. Many hopefuls have already stepped forward for the most high-profile EU post, of European Commission president, and the main political groups vying in next May’s European Parliament elections have already chosen their candidates, or ‘Spitzenkandidat’.

But in Brussels and other EU capitals, more and more questions are being asked about whether the current declared candidates are up to the job. If these concerns grow, EU leaders may make their own choice for Commission President. And if that happens, they will find themselves on a collision course with MEPs.

Power play

At its heart, this is an issue about power. Until 2014, the Commission President was always chosen by EU leaders at their summits. The lucky man – and it was always a man – was decided by unanimity, and his subsequent endorsement by the European Parliament was a formality.

But in 2014, MEPs felt it was time to change the process. They created the Spitzenkandidat system that would ensure the lead candidate of the winning group should go on to head the Commission. They insisted that the new system would build a stronger democratic link between the Commission and the European Parliament elections. That is how Jean-Claude Juncker, the Spitzenkandidat of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), secured the Commission job.

The clear favourite in the current process is Juncker’s successor as EPP Spitzenkandidat, German MEP Manfred Weber. Weber is from the Bavarian CSU, and he currently leads the EPP’s MEPs. With the EPP looking certain to remain the biggest political group after the elections next May, he is in a comfortable position. However, he has no executive experience and is virtually unknown outside EU circles. It is hard to see how he can answer the EU’s pressing need to reconnect with voters.

MEPs vs leaders

Ask almost anyone in the Parliament today and they will say it’s a surefire certainty that the Spitzenkandidat process will be repeated in 2019, muttering in the same breath, “even with Weber”. It has, they argue, an unanswerable democratic logic to it: voters can see who will represent them in the Commission, and it will help bridge the yawning gap between institutions and the people. All the main political groups have agreed to respect the procedure invented five years ago: the EPP, S&D, the rightwing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), and the Greens. Only the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has not signed up.

However, ask anyone close to national governments and they will look at you in disbelief that the Spitzenkandidat process can continue. The EU Treaties make no mention of this procedure, and the Weber has never served in government. His main rival, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Frans Timmermans, is competent and articulate as the current Commission Vice President, but likewise, as a former Dutch Foreign Minister, he never reached the highest political office. By contrast, the last four Commission Presidents were all former prime ministers: Juncker (Luxembourg), José-Manuel Barroso (Portugal), Romano Prodi (Italy), and Jacques Santer (Luxembourg).

Some critics go further and say Weber only won the EPP vote as Spitzenkandidat – over the experienced and charismatic Alex Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister – because he was in control of the EPP itself. They say that EU leaders were taken by surprise after the European elections in 2014, when the Parliament forcefully rallied around Juncker – but they will not allow MEPs to set the agenda this time around. As for the argument that Spitzenkandidat system raises the profile of the EU, they point out that few voters learned about Juncker during the 2014 campaign – and that voter turnout actually fell by half a percentage point between the 2009 and 2014 polls.

That’s not all. The Parliament’s own polling reveals that in next year’s European elections, for the first time in history the EPP and the S&D together will fail to reach 50% of the seats. If these polls prove correct, the next Commission President will have to win a broad basis of support going beyond the traditional coalition. It raises difficult questions. For example, if Weber remains close to Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EPP’s enfant terrible, does he have a chance of winning the necessary support on the left?

Of course, these elections will take place in an unprecedented era of populism, nationalism and Euroscepticism. The entire EU establishment is likely to receive a slap in the face from the electorate, not just in the form of votes for fringes and populists, but in the low turnout. If the EU is to recover, it cannot afford to get mired in process, factionalism or inter-institutional squabbles. It needs strong leadership now, more than ever.

Beyond the Spitzenkandidat

At one point, there was hope that this leadership could come from French President Emmanuel Macron: he created his own centrist party, won the presidency with unabashed pro-EU convictions, and tried to transcend traditional left-right politics. He is a vocal opponent of the Spitzenkandidat process, seeking to bring back the role of EU leaders in choosing the Commission President. He has been weakened, at least temporarily, by the gilets jaunes insurrection in France. But he still prefers a centrist, liberal and unifying Commission President – particularly if that candidate is also be a woman, like EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, a Danish liberal.

Macron might not get his way, but there is still a strong chance the leaders and MEPs will clash after the elections. Weber is a shrewd political animal, but most leaders feel he does not have the political weight to head the Commission.

If there is a confrontation, a compromise candidate might emerge. Stubb might be called in. On the S&D side, higher profile candidates could be considered, like former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt or former Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern. All remain in the fray as possible names not only as Commission President but as European Council President to replace Donald Tusk.

The dark horse in this is Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator. He may not be a former leader, but he has impeccable credentials otherwise. He was Juncker’s main rival as EPP Spitzenkandidat in 2014, is a former French Foreign Minister, a two-time Commissioner, and his brilliant negotiating of the Brexit deal has given him name-recognition and credibility across the board. He still faces a huge obstacle, notably from MEPs who insist they will block anyone who is not a Spitzenkandidat. But in their heart, most MEPs must recognise that the untested and unknown Weber is a risk.

After a woeful five years, this is perhaps last chance for the EU to prove it can regain the initiative. The stakes have never been higher, and the EU needs someone who is confident, can communicate, and represents the people. Leaders were wrong footed in 2014 by the Spitzenkandidaten system. But they need a serious person at the helm, and they cannot afford to leave the choice to an obscure process that has so far failed to find the best person for the job.

Author: David Harley

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