Thursday

23rd Mar 2017

Analysis

The Spitzenkandidaten – this time was it different?

  • Was it different this time? The Spitzenkandidat campaign was a fascinating novelty. (Photo: ZDF)

The billboards that surrounded the European Parliament's buildings in Brussels proclaimed "this time it's different". That, at least, was the idea.

One thing that is beyond dispute is that the 2014 campaign was certainly far more Brussels-centric than any previous European election. This was thanks to the 'Spitzenkandidaten'.

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  • Was it different? The Spitzencandidat campaign was the main novelty in the European elections. (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

From the handful of US Presidential-style debates to the final, slightly surreal 'election meets Eurovision' event in the Parliament on Sunday night, having five putative party candidates for the EU commission presidency has been a fascinating novelty.

The Parliament, and the political groups, have made the most of the treaty language stating that parliamentary election results must be taken into account when EU leaders nominate a person to replace Jose Manuel Barroso, the current Commission president.

The debates may have been stilted and, at times, painfully earnest, but the candidates traded blows over Europe's economic past and future, as well as unemployment, energy and foreign policy. That said, they all failed to give convincing reasons for Europeans to go to the polls, and the tidal wave of euroscepticism which has now stuck a number of European countries was barely discussed at all.

The question is whether the experiment will be repeated again. There are several risks which could kill off the concept.

One is that EU governments may just decide to ignore the five candidates and pick someone else. Many major EU leaders have watched the 'Sptizencandidat' campaign with a mixture of bemusement bordering on contempt.

David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte have made it clear that the division of seats in the Brussels Parliament should have little bearing on who gets to look down from the Berlaymont tower.

Moreover, with no clear winner and the three major political groups all performing poorly, there is plenty of scope for a compromise candidate such as Danish prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt or International Monetary Fund boss Christine Lagarde to emerge.

Picking a candidate that isn't on any ballot paper would confirm every prejudice that EU jobs are decided not by elections but by men (and women) in grey suits, and thus kill off any idea of the campaign taking root with Europe's voters.

The other is that voters simply don't buy into the idea of a campaign for the Commission presidency. The 2014 candidates have been a distinctly underwhelming bunch in terms of name recognition and dynamism, not to mention policy.

Although the final debate was broadcast on 49 TV channels, the reality is that only a tiny minority of the 170 million or so Europeans who voted watched any of the debates. Excluding the debate between Juncker and Schulz on German TV, the viewer ratings for the 'Spitzenkandidat' debates were fewer than 500,000 combined.

The result: plenty of excitement amongst the thousands of politicos, civil servants and lobbyists in Brussels, precious little elsewhere.

In the social media site Twitter, 63,000 tweets were sent during the final debate, comfortably up from the 47,000 sent during the first televised debate in Maastricht two weeks ago.

Not bad. But more than 10 million tweets were sent during the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, giving some illustration of how far these elections have to go in terms of entering public consciousness.

The Spitzenkandidat campaign has felt like an experiment – but that is because it is one.

At the very least, it will take two more election cycles before the battle for the Commission presidency seeps into public consciousness outside Brussels. Alternatively, they may expose the Spitzenkandidat concept as the artificial exercise that sceptics have accused it of being.

The next possible step, although it is hard to imagine EU heads of government agreeing to it, was mooted by Liberal Spitzenkandidat Guy Verhofstadt and Socialist group leader Hannes Swoboda, who called for the EU commission president to be directly elected by voters.

Even with the results all in, we are no closer to knowing who will get to replace Barroso.

Jean-Claude Juncker's European People's Party may have won the most seats, but in losing just under 80 seats from 2009, they also incurred the heaviest losses. With the Socialists marginally down on 186 seats and the Liberals down to a mere 58 seats, none of the candidates can convincingly claim to have a decisive mandate from Europe's voters.

One irony seemed to be lost on the candidates on Sunday night, as Juncker, Schulz and Verhofstadt lined up in the European Parliament to tell reporters that they would try to build a majority among the assembly's political groups, starting with a meeting of group leaders – known as a Conference of Presidents – on Tuesday morning.

They all insisted that the next Commission president should be one of them and warned EU leaders, who will meet tomorrow in Brussels, not to ignore the election results and stitch up the top job via a back-room deal.

The Conference of Presidents is the Parliament's equivalent of 'men in grey suits' – taking decisions and making deals behind closed doors. It is ludicrous to suggest that it is any more transparent than a summit of EU leaders.

The election results were, in many respects, just the opening shots in the campaign for Barroso's office in the Commission's Berlaymont tower. The real battle starts now.

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