Thursday

22nd Aug 2019

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

  • 'Iron Man' Alexander Stubb - marathon runner and an early favourite to replace Jean-Claude Juncker. But the candidates have to contend with the May 2019 European parliament elections, the Spitzenkandidat process itself and member states objections (Photo: European Parliament)

After the Spitzenkandidat process led to the coronation of Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the European People's Party (EPP), as president of the European Commission in November 2014, EU leaders pledged they would not let the European Parliament keep the control they had grabbed over deciding the commission president.

But four years later the Spitzenkandidat (German for 'lead candidate', but has slipped into common usage) machine has sprung back to life.

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  • In the complicated game of musical chairs behind the Spitzenkandidat, competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager probably has little chance - whatever popularity she has with MEPs, she lacks backing at home in Denmark (Photo: European Commission)

Despite EU leaders' misgivings, it looks like it has become a permanent feature of the procedure for filling the EU's top jobs.

The fight to become the top candidate for the EPP, the biggest group in the parliament, is a real contest between the dull Bavarian conservative Manfred Weber and multilingual 'Iron Man' Alexander Stubb.

Stubb is technically Finnish but is as different from the cliche of an monosyllabic introvert as you can get.

In the centre-left corner, the Party of European Socialists have to choose between Frans Timmermans, the polyglot, football-loving former Dutch foreign minister and commission vice-president, and Maros Sefcovic, a sometimes naive pro-European from Slovakia, who is currently commissioner for the energy union.

The liberal ALDE camp, by contrast, has not yet got its act together.

French president Emmanuel Macron, in a typical display of hubris, thinks he can refashion EU political formations in the same way as he did in France by breaking the traditional left-right divide when he launched his La Republique En Marche party.

Macron, like many French presidents, doesn't understand the European parliament very well and underestimates the strength of the political groups.

Macron has opposed the Spitzenkandidat system, seeing that its effective operation is a threat to his ability to install his preferred candidate – currently Danish competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager – as president of the commission.

Vestager has also spoken out against the Spitzenkandidaten process, saying that the system lacks democratic legitimacy because voters in European parliament elections cannot vote directly for who they want to head the commission.

She has also complained that the process gives too much power to the parliament at the expense of EU leaders and that it prevents good candidates entering the field if they have not been Spitzenkandidaten. Does she have any good candidates in mind?

Vestager's big obstacle to a second term in the commission is not the political groups' influence but rather the fact that she stands next to no chance of being nominated by whichever Danish government is in power next year.

Her Social Liberal Party has been out of the government since 2015. Denmark's next elections are in 2019 but neither the prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen nor the Social Democrats are likely to nominate Vestager for a commissioner's post.

Despite Macron and Vestager's criticism of the Spitzenkandidat system, ALDE is expected to propose a slate of leading candidates which would include Vestager.

Guy Verhofstadt (who was rejected by British prime minister Tony Blair as commission president in 2004), still harbours ambitions for one of the top EU posts and would be sure to feature on the ALDE slate.

Musical chairs

Verhofstadt big problem is that Dutch prime minister and fellow liberal Mark Rutte is aiming to succeed Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Although the posts of commission and European council president are currently held by figures from the same political group (namely, the EPP), ALDE could not expect the same riches.

Verhofstadt may therefore have to settle for the presidency that falls far short of his ambitions; that of president of parliament.

EU leaders will find that, after May 2019's European parliament elections, they will not be able to dismiss the biggest groups' candidates for the commission job.

In February, leaders discussed the Spitzenkandidat process at a summit in Brussels and agreed that they could not accept the automaticity of the Spitzenkandidat process, i.e. that the candidate from the group with the largest number of MEPs becomes commission president.

After all the Lisbon treaty merely says that the European Council should choose the president "taking into account the results of the European Parliament elections" without specifying the mechanism.

The candidate could, in theory, come from the ranks of the Greens, the nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists Group or Nigel Farage's Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) depending on how they do in next year's elections.

The ECR will decide on its candidate in November while the EFDD has not yet decided whether it will put up a candidate.

Leaders in the European council will have to agree to the winning candidates from the two largest political groups being on the list of nominees to head the commission.

The European parliament elections bestow a degree of democratic legitimacy, even if it is less than MEPs use to justify their influence over the selection of commission president.

But any candidate will only become commission president if they can win the support of a majority of MEPs.

Broad political appeal will be crucial and I can see reasons why Weber, Stubb and Timmermans would find it difficult, though not impossible, to build the necessary majority.

The European parliament's political groups would have less power over the choice of commission president than they did in 2014.

But the European council would be sharing its influence with rank-and-file MEPs.

That's not a bad result for the hybrid form of democracy that operates in the EU institutions.

Simon Taylor is a Brussels-based freelance writer and adviser on EU affairs.

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