Published: 07 December 2023

The Spitzenkandidaten process on life support

With the next elections to the European Parliament just six months away attention is now inevitably turning to how the Spitzenkandidaten process can still be part of the proceedings.

By way of brief recap, the European Parliament had been agitating for some time about its lack of involvement in the nomination of the president of the European Commission and (since 2009) of the president of the European Council.

Until 2014 Parliament’s pleas fell on deaf Member States’ ears as the EU’s political leaders took the view (and most still do) that such high level appointments were their sole responsibility, especially as – since 1995 at least – the top Commission job should be chosen from their own ranks – i.e. sitting prime ministers – and similarly for the new European Council position.

Parliament had always couched its arguments in terms of democratic accountability as the only directly elected EU institution. Since that in itself had failed to budge in any way the status quo, it adapted its strategy to link the 5 year cycle of these top jobs up for grabs to the 5 year cycle of its own EU-wide elections in 2014.

In practice this required all the political groups nominating a “Spitzenkandidat” or lead candidate (the Greens going for a joint ticket) and, depending on the outcome of the EP elections, the Commission and Council top posts would be allocated to the lead candidate of the successful groups.

The Parliament – cannily or bravely depending on your point of view – added a ‘killer argument’ that this new process would make the elections more political with human faces representing amorphous political groupings and so arrest the gradual decline in voter turnout from a high of 62% in 1979 (the first elections to the now directly Parliament) to 43% in the most recent elections in 2009. This was not just therefore a ’nice to have’ embellishment but a response to an increasingly worrying trend in voter apathy.

A great deal of resources were devoted to apprising voters of this new system and many arch pro-Europeans excitedly promoted it as an important and necessary step to creating a true European ‘demos’ – especially since the idea of trans-European parties had still not gained any serious traction.

From the outset, the system, well intentioned as it was, seemed rather confusing. The lead candidate of the European People’s Party (historically the largest political grouping in the Parliament and still is to this day) was the then Luxembourg Prime Minister. His counterpart from the Socialist grouping (Socialists and Democrats to give them their full name) was the outgoing President of the Parliament, Martin Schulz, who was also standing (presumably as an insurance policy) for re-election to the Parliament. Not only that he angled, in the event of not emerging as the winning lead candidate and therefore the next president of the European Commission, to return to the Parliament to serve an unprecedented (and to this day unique) second consecutive term as Parliament’s president.

Understandably the various campaigns were not executed to the same level of intensity and enthusiasm in all Member States. But the case of Germany is significant and demonstrated the innate lack of coherence in the whole Spitzenkandidaten process: for example, EPP election posters displayed the image of Chancellor Merkel, and not that of Jean-Claude Juncker, while at least one of the slogans of the Socialists and Democrats stressed that by voting for Martin Schulz that would lead to a German president of the European Commission.

Most tellingly, however, is that the new process, promoted as both an important and necessary means to bolster voter participation, failed to result in an increased turnout. In fact there was an ever so slight decrease from 42,97% in 2009 to 42,61% in 2014.

To be fair, turnout in the following European Parliament elections in 2019 did rise to 50,66% but some would argue that this was despite the Spitzenkandidaten process not because of it. Sure, the European Parliament was growing in stature and influence but Europe’s leaders, most if not of all of whom were vehemently opposed to the process, ultimately – and after much agonising – chose as the Commission president a personality, Ursula von der Leyen, who while coming from the political family which had won the largest number of seats in 2019, was most definitely not their original Spitzenkandidatin.

So what role, if any, will this process play in the 2024 plebiscite? To some extent, there is some scope for ‘face saving’ if, as seems quite likely the current Commission president is re-appointed to a second five year term next year. This can be presented as the process being respected as the EPP is expected, again, to be the largest political grouping after next June’s elections and the EPP is just waiting for the opportunity to anoint Ursula von der Leyen as its lead candidate.

But she has already informally indicated that she has no intention of ‘campaigning’ as any kind of Spitzenkandidatin. Most importantly, if she is re-appointed, it will be because the Member States want her to continue in the job not because the Parliament has prevailed.

By Paul Adamson, Partner & Chairman - Forum Europe

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