Like Superman, the 'Spitzenkandidat' doesn't really exist — only Ursula von der Leyen of the current crop stands a chance of becoming the next EU Commission president, and that decision is made by the 27 national leaders, not EU voters (Photo: Mehdi MeSSrro)


Forget the TV debates, the 'Spitzenkandidate' process is now a distracting sham

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The last European elections back in 2019 were a pivotal moment in the debate over the so-called 'Spitzenkandidat' process. After a series of wrong political moves and successive negotiation deadlocks, EU leaders, as part of a package agreement for top positions in the European Union's institutions, proposed Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission. She was a political figure unknown to the general public, lacking prime ministerial experience, and her name had never been considered for this position during the election period.

Those who closely followed the discussions during that period, still remember the narrow majority in the European Parliament in favour of her candidacy and the strong reactions, mainly from MEPs to the decision of European leaders to bypass the Spitzenkandidat process.

According to this process, each political party, from the largest to the smallest, must propose a lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. These candidates must be known in advance, defend a manifesto, and participate in the election campaign. In return, the party that secures the most seats in the European Parliament will be "entitled" to choose its lead candidate from the EU leaders, thus dissolving the lack of transparency around backstage agreements based on party preferences, geographical criteria, and other interests.

It worked — in 2014

This process was applied almost successfully for the first time with the election of Jean-Claude Juncker in the 2014 European elections, the first electoral process after the Lisbon Treaty came into effect.

The European political parties (except for the Eurosceptic European Conservatives & Reformsits, ECR, party) proposed their "top candidates”, who actively participated in the election period and conducted a series of debates on the future of the Union and on specific European policies and issues.

For many 2014 was considered as the beginning of an ambitious European democratic reform, giving citizens the opportunity, through their vote, to indirectly provide democratic legitimacy to the political leader of the EU's top executive body.

But five years later, the system collapsed emphatically when all the Spitzenkandidaten were rejected by the EU leaders, nullifying the process and undermining the democratic essence of the European Parliament.

Was it an illegal move or a violation of any of the provisions of the European Treaties? The truth is that the Lisbon Treaty deliberately chose creative ambiguity in this regard, as it stipulates that the European Council must propose a candidate for the Commission presidency "taking into account the results of the elections”.

In simple terms, there is no explicit legal obligation or commitment anywhere that obliges EU leaders to choose a Spitzenkandidat as a candidate

And here we are today, with the upcoming European elections promising to give a new chance to the Spitzenkandidat system. The European People's Party (EPP) has already chosen the current president of the Commission as its "top candidate," as have most European parties.

Unfortunately, none of the above seems capable of securing the necessary majority in both the European Council and the European Parliament. And maybe it is better to avoid any comparisons between today's candidates with the political figures that ran for the position in 2014.

At this point in time, the current president appears to have a slight advantage due to her position and recognition.

On the other hand, von der Leyen represents the failure of the 'top candidate' system in 2019 and her tenure has been marred by controversies and criticisms, raising doubts about her suitability for a second term.

Moreover, let's not overlook the fact that von der Leyen, during her five-year term and during the election period, never tried to connect with citizens, avoiding public appearances and meetings with the public.

It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that the day after June’s European elections will come together with a major dilemma for the new composition of the European Parliament and for the 27 heads of state and government of the EU member states: to offer their support to the current president of the Commission for a second term – despite her weaknesses and mainly her very low popularity and acceptance rates among European citizens – or to choose for the second consecutive election to completely ignore the Spitzenkandidat process, selecting a political figure of broad acceptance, recognised value, and prestige.

Like Superman, the 'Spitzenkandidat' doesn't really exist — only Ursula von der Leyen of the current crop stands a chance of becoming the next EU Commission president, and that decision is made by the 27 national leaders, not EU voters (Photo: Mehdi MeSSrro)


Author Bio

Christos Avdellas is a Greek councillor in Thessaloniki, Greece, and an EU project manager


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