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23rd May 2019

Interview

Spitzenkandidat system 'difficult to get rid of', hopes lead MEP

  • Polish MEP Danuta Huebner (Photo: European Parliament)

The example of Jean-Claude Juncker becoming European Commission president in 2014 is a strong precedent to keep the controversial 'Spitzenkandidat' system, says the lead MEP in charge of constitutional affairs ahead of a likely battle with the national governments over the issue.

"We already have been through this process once. The practice is already there," said Polish MEP Danuta Huebner in an interview with EUobserver on Wednesday (17 January).

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  • The 2014 European Parliament elections saw a novelty: the debate between Spitzenkandidaten (Photo: European Parliament)

She said that not only her centre-right EPP, but all major political groups in the parliament support the so-called 'Spitzenkandidaten' process, named after the German word for a leading candidate on a party list.

Before the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, the president of the commission would be chosen by the leaders of national governments, often a result of political haggling.

The European Council, where national leaders meet, still has the legal right to propose a commission president candidate to the EU parliament, but the Lisbon treaty said the result of parliament elections should be taken into account when selecting a candidate.

The parliament successfully used this clause to set up the Spitzenkandidat system.

"The political process is there. It will be difficult to get rid of it," said Huebner.

"The council is not convinced yet. We will see what the discussion in the European Council in February will bring on this."

EU leaders will meet for an informal summit on 23 February, to discuss the Spitzenkandidaten system, but also the composition of the EU parliament after the 2019 elections.

Brexit re-allocation?

Huebner, together with a centre-left colleague, has been in charge of drafting a legal text which redistributes some of the 73 seats which British MEPs will vacate after Brexit, two months before the elections.

"Our first idea was: one member state is gone, a big member state, we have to reduce the size of the parliament, that was the starting point, for sure," she said.

But the MEPs quickly saw Brexit as an opportunity to make the distribution of parliament seats more fair.

In theory, the parliament seats are divided according to a principle called degressive proportionality. This takes into account the population of each EU member state, but only to a certain extent.

The smallest EU member state, Malta, for example has six MEPs, while the largest, Germany, has 96 MEPs.

This distribution however is not completely based on population: Malta has one MEP per 69,352 citizens, while Germany has one MEP per 852,539 citizens.

Degressive proportionality is a means to prevent large member states like Germany from completely dominating the parliament. But the current situation needs some corrections, said Huebner.

"We have a composition of the parliament that does not meet fully the treaty requirements on degressive proportionality," she said.

She said this needed to be fixed to prevent affected EU countries from taking legal action.

"Member states who are in a situation where they are, sort of, paying the consequences of the lack of degressive proportionality ... can go to the court."

More immigration means more MEPs

Part of the need to redistribute seats has to do with changing population numbers.

"In the past you remember that demographic change was very slow, long-term," said Huebner.

"Now, with migration there are countries which are much more open and which have increased over the last years also their population, because of migration."

"We have those countries who are against migration, they have to take into account that this is also the fact of life."

She gave a comparison between Spain and her native Poland. In the early 1990s, the population of both countries was almost the same, at around 38 million.

Now, Spain's population has grown to 46 million, and Poland's has decreased to just below 38 million.

Polish MEPs want more Polish colleagues

In the draft legal text, or draft report, published last September, Huebner and Portuguese centre-left MEP Pedro Silva Pereira, proposed that Spain's number of MEPs would increase from 54 to 58.

They kept the number of Polish MEPs at 51.

Separately, Huebner added her name to an amendment calling for 55 Polish MEPs. The amendment was signed by all 22 Polish members of her group, the EPP.

She explained that what was in the draft report, was where she and Silva Pereira could find agreement on, and that it was normal for rapporteurs to also support some amendments.

"I did not do this individually, but I co-signed with my Polish colleagues an amendment to take into account also the possibility of giving Poland [more seats]." "We should consider giving Poland more seats," she added.

Huebner said that the EU's member states can be divided in separate groups: big countries, small countries, and midsize countries of around 10 million.

"Then you have those few countries, like Romania, Poland, Netherlands, which are neither midsized nor big ones. What we are also trying to do, which is a political exercise, not necessarily numerical, that each of the groups is somehow taken care of."

She pointed out the Lisbon treaty also changed the voting power of member states in the Council of the EU and that countries like Poland and Romania are living with the "conviction that in the council they are underrepresented".

"We cannot ignore also political issues, provided … the political dimension respects degressive proportionality," she noted.

Pan-European lists

The text on the redistribution of seats will be voted on in Huebner's committee on Tuesday (23 January).

It will also address the possibility of some of the vacated seats be filled by candidates from a pan-European list – currently EU citizens can only vote for candidates from their own country.

"This document now, this legal act, is not a legal basis for the transnational lists," she said, adding that she had already proposed transnational lists in 2015.

However, she pointed out that the February summit will also feature the idea of pan-EU lists.

"For the first time in the council we now have a strong movement towards introducing transnational lists," she noted.

Last week, the leaders of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain rallied behind the idea, recently relaunched by French president Emmanuel Macron.

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.

Magazine

The spitzenkandidaten coup

The year 2014 shall go down as the date the European Parliament snatched away the right to nominate a European Commission president from national governments.

MEPs to keep 27 UK seats after Brexit

The number of French MEPs will grow from 74 to 79, while Spanish MEPs will increase in number from 54 to 59. Italy, the Netherlands, and Ireland will also get more MEPs, but Germany is already at the maximum allowed.

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