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15th Oct 2018

Magazine

The spitzenkandidaten coup

  • The Spitzenkandidat process was largely a result of the work of Klaus Welle (l) and Martin Schulz (r). Their project came to fruition in July when EU leaders nominated Jean-Claude Juncker to be European Commission president (Photo: European Parliament)

For followers of European politics, 2014 marked the sliding of "spitzenkandidat" into the general lexicon.

Translated literally from the German its apparently innocuous meaning is "top candidate". But it came to symbolise a major power dispute between the European Parliament and member states.

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  • Jean-Claude Juncker (l), Martin Schulz (c) and Guy Verhofstadt (r) took part in several presidential debates - although the wider public remained blissfully unware (Photo: European Parliament)

It was a battle that national governments woke up to too late and then lost. The drawn-out power struggle saw the term adopted wholesale into English-language reporting from Brussels.

Two men - two Germans, as it happens - were chiefly responsible for it getting to the battle stage in the first place. One was Klaus Welle, secretary general of the European Parliament. The other was Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament.

Both worked to stretch to the widest limit the key - and, crucially, loose - wording in the EU treaty on choosing the next European Commission president.

The new rules – saying the commission president should be chosen "taking into account" the European election results - were to be applied for the first time in the May EU elections.

But while member states read the article and assumed a happy continuation of the practice of yesteryear - a behind-closed-doors huddle of EU leaders to pick a president who ruffled the fewest feathers - the parliament had very different ideas.

Embarrassed by the ever dwindling turnout for the EU vote, several MEPs wanted to make citizens feel something was at stake when they cast their vote - that it had palpable political consequences.

This is where Martin Schulz came to the fore. He got himself nominated as the Socialists' front man and set about presenting himself as a candidate for the commission president.

The Liberals, the Greens and far-left followed suit with their own nominees.

Pushing behind the scenes was Welle who was fond of remarking that national governments rarely knew what they had signed up to in the EU treaties.

Reluctant Merkel

While all this was going on the largest party in the parliament, the centre-right EPP, was lagging behind. The reason: German chancellor Angela Merkel. She was against the idea but, crucially, had also missed its growing dynamic.

Her dismissive references to the spitzenkandidat process only made MEPs more determined, which meant that in early 2014 the EPP found itself taking part in the nomination game too.

Half-heartedly and never actually expecting him to get the job, the centre-right faction chose veteran EU politician Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, to be its forerunner.

After that, Schulz along with the Liberal nominee Guy Verhofstadt, set about creating a fact on the ground. They became "commission president candidates" and started travelling around and presenting themselves as such. Juncker, who reportedly didn't actually want the commission presidency but rather the less demanding EU council presidency, suddenly started to act the part too.

Before long they were taking part in TV debates - though the vast majority of the EU public remained blissfully unaware.

With each event and public presentation they were cementing the idea of a presidential candidate. Several member states remained resolutely sceptical however, seeing themselves just as democratically entitled to take the decision on the commission president as the parliament.

Shock vote

It is in that unclear situation that the EU went to elections in May 2014. In the event the result of the vote turned out to be a shock for everyone.

The centre-right EPP got the most seats, though much reduced when compared to 2009. The Socialists did better but still remained in second place. The Greens and the Liberals were pushed into fourth and sixth place among the seven political groups (down from third and fourth respectively). Meanwhile, anti-establishment parties on the far-left and the far-right made major gains.

Again the parliament was faster off the mark than member states. With the electoral dust barely settled, it came out in support of Juncker and said member states must nominate him to be commission president.

They said making Juncker president would be a reflection of the people's will. Juncker, clearly fatigued after his campaign, was wheeled out to do victory speeches.

A constitutional coup

National governments - who hitherto had always nominated the commission president - pushed back, but suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the argument.

This was particularly so for David Cameron, British PM, who conducted a vociferous anti-Juncker campaign but was left isolated when Merkel, his erstwhile ally on the issue, abandoned the fight.

One month after the EU elections, and by now thoroughly backed into a corner, EU leaders endorsed Juncker as president. Some three weeks later, MEPs approved him too.

Thus the parliament very neatly engineered its constitutional coup.

What's more, it managed it with smoke and mirrors. Turnout for the 2014 European election - despite the Spitzenkandidat process - was still the lowest ever since direct elections began.

And the people-voting-the-commission-president idea made little impression even in those countries considered most attuned to it: Germany's Bild newspaper found that only 7 percent of voters could identify Juncker - a German-speaker who had debated on national TV - as the centre-right's lead candidate.

Master hand

A lot of political weight is riding on Juncker as the first to emerge from the new system. His presidency got off to a shaky start due to revelations about the extent of tax avoidance policies undertaken when he was prime minister of Luxembourg - schemes that the European Commission is now investigating.

But assuming Juncker weathers the tax storm - the next commission president election, in 2019, will certainly follow the same process only much more professionally.

There will be more campaigning, earlier, and with a lot more money. And, much more care will be taken about who is nominated.

It is highly debatable to say that the spitzenkandidat made the EU elections more democratic - it is perhaps fairer to say that it opened the door to making them more so in the future.

One thing is certain though - the European Parliament played a master hand in 2014.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

Opinion

Winter is here for Spitzenkandidat, but he'll survive

Candidates from all political families should be presenting their vision on where the Union should be headed. European socialists want to keep the Spitzenkandidat procedure for future elections.

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