19th Mar 2018

EU leaders put 'Spitzenkandidat' on summit menu

  • Ahead of the summit, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel (c) hosted some of his counterparts, including French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo: ©Chancellery of the Prime Minister)

European leaders gather in Brussels on Friday (23 February) to kick off their debate on how to organise the European Parliament elections in 2019 – a debate that may seem legalistic and navel-gazing to some, but are essentially about European democracy.

One EU source briefing journalists ahead of the summit apologised for a lengthy institutional explanation.

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  • The European Parliament adopted a text threatening not to accept a candidate for European Commission president if he or she had not been a candidate at the elections (Photo: European Parliament)

"I know it's not really interesting in the capitals, but we are here in Brussels and in [the] Brussels bubble this is always the news of the day," he said.

But the issues on the table on Friday are about how to make citizens care more about what is decided at EU level – since EU citizens have been able to vote for MEPs in 1979, voter turnout has only decreased, from 62 percent in 1979 to just 43 percent in the last elections in 2014.

The most contentious of the institutional topics up for debate is how to select the next president of the European Commission.

The current one, Jean-Claude Juncker, acquired his post by a new system invented by the parliament whereby each political party puts forward a lead candidate.

Juncker was the lead candidate of the European People's Party (EPP), the EPP received the most seats in the 2014 elections, so the argument was that Juncker should therefore become president of the EU commission.


The parliament, as well as the commission, want to repeat this process, known in Brussels for the German word for lead candidate: Spitzenkandidat.

Legally it is the European Council – the gathering of prime ministers and presidents – which puts forward a candidate for commission president, to then be confirmed by MEPs.

But earlier this month, MEPs adopted a resolution in which they threatened to reject any commission president candidate that had not been a Spitzenkandidat for one of the political parties – the idea being that it will be someone who has campaigned openly.

Some sources in the council criticised the parliament's text as not very diplomatic, saying its wording was "tough".

"I've heard comments from a number of colleagues from the capitals who were here on Monday, that they were a bit disappointed with the language of the resolution of the parliament," said the EU source briefing journalists.

"We don't think what Europe needs is a deep conflict with the European Parliament," he added.

No automatism

But it seems likely that this is what will happen.

Leaders want to remain in control over the process, also because there may be other factors weighing in – like regional distribution or gender balance.

"The most likely message out of this European Council will be to say that there is no automatism here," the source added – which is the opposite of what MEPs want.

When German chancellor Angela Merkel was asked earlier this week whether there should be an automatism related to the lead candidate process, she did not give a clear answer.

"It still remains a complicated process, but the naming of lead candidates does lead to more visibility," said Merkel in her video-podcast last weekend.

One advantage for Merkel of the process is that her political family, the centre-right EPP, profits from it if it remains the largest group in the parliament.

250 years of EPP power

The EPP's continued reign at the centre of power is even accepted by some leaders from other political families.

"My estimation is that the European Christian Democrats will remain the largest party for the next 250 years," said Mark Rutte, the liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, at a debate in the Dutch parliament on Thursday.

He opposed the automatism because it would mean an EPP commission president "for the next 250 years".

But Rutte also showed that the debate on who picks the commission president also ties into how a nation views what the role of that institution should be.

"Because it would confirm that the commission has a political role. [But] the commission is no political body," he said.

Unlike Juncker, the Dutch do not want a political commission, but rather a guardian of EU law which makes sure that rules are being adhered to.

Transnational lists

France meanwhile has come out against the lead candidate automatism, but there another motive is also present.

French president Emmanuel Macron is not part of one of the old political parties, and has proposed new ways of electing MEPs.

Following his election last year, Macron reintroduced an old idea of having transnational electoral lists.

Such lists would allow prospective MEPs to run as candidate in multiple countries – instead of just one EU member state.

A majority of MEPs – led by the EPP – earlier this week said they did not want to introduce such lists for now.

To some, like Rutte, that means that the topic is "no longer timely".

Council president Donald Tusk said earlier this week that the idea had merit and was "certainly worth discussing in view of the 2024 elections" – i.e. not for next year's elections.

Some sources also pointed out that to set up transnational lists many legal questions still need to be solved – as well as political ones.

No final decisions will be taken on Friday, but the debate will give an idea of the directions for European democracy.

Centre-right torpedoes pan-EU electoral lists plan

Parliament's largest group, the EPP, nixes idea of MEPs elected by citizens from multiple member states - but backs plans to keep the 'Spitzenkandidat' system for 2019, which hands power to parliament (and thus voters) to select Commission president.

EU leaders nix transnational lists, cool on 'Spitzenkandidat'

The 'Brussels bubble' ideas for transnational electoral lists was put on ice at the summit, while Jean-Claude Juncker's idea for an EU 'super president' was also rejected. The 'Spitzenkandidat' proposal backed by the European parliament also suffered a rebuff.

Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case

The European Commission repeated that it followed the rules when its former head joined Goldman Sachs - and suggested it will not follow the EU Ombudsman's demand to refer the case back to the ethics committee.

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