We continue with our special series on the forthcoming European Parliamentary Elections and in this article, we take a look at the role of the Spitzenkandidaten, what it entails and who is looking for the job.

Spitzenkandidat. You might have seen or heard this term mentioned in the media regarding the European Parliament and while it’s genuinely surprising just how many people ignore it, the term and role is going to be lot more important in the next few weeks to come so we will help you to understand that the hell is Spitzenkandidat.

The basics

In short, the word literally means leading candidate or top person and is German in origin. Spitzenkandidaten is the plural term. What’s important about it is that as a role, it is effectively a candidate for the next President of the European Commission which is currently held by former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.

What is the procedure?

Slightly complicated but it goes something like this. The political groups or blocs in the European Parliament choose a Spitzenkandidat by consensus or as a competitive primary-style election process, similar to the ones we all love to watch in the US. Each nominee will then battle it out as part of their groups overall European Parliamentary election campaign, running alongside all the other candidates who are vying for seats in the Parliament.
Spitzenkandidat don’t need to be MEPs or running for an MEP office.

Now for the next bit

Once the European Parliament election has been concluded, the nominated candidate from the group with the most MEP seats is the to be considered by the heads of Members States’ governments, which is called the European Council.

The European Council use the qualified majority system to endorse the Sptizenkandidat from the now largest group in the Parliament. The majority system is varied across the world but in this case, the the rule is 55% of Member States representing at least 65% of the population. Once the candidate has been approved by the European Council, they then go back to the European Parliament for final approval.

So how is it perceived?

Mixed to be honest. Those in favour see it as very democratic way of doing this as it is a road map to the European Parliament having final approval while critics claim that the real power still lies with an almost individual type control in the heads of state having a large say in who gets the job. The nomination system can also lead to fears that if extreme elements gain a large portion of the Parliament seats, it could lead to an unbalanced domination of policy. Some groups already don’t agree with the system and are putting forward alternative methods which we will explain later.

Who are the runners and riders?

Let’s start with the big guns and move our way down.

European Peoples Party (EPP)

The EPP are the largest party in the Parliament with a centre right conservative leaning. They have gone with the safe bet of Manfred Weber who is a German MEP and was first elected to the Parliament in 2004. Webber is the Chair of the EPP and is a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. He has a decent following and would be considered one of the favourites.

Party of European Socialists (PES)

Frans Timmermans will head up the centre-left campaign for PES. Timmermans has a decent track record as a former Dutch Foreign Minister is currently First Vice-President of the European Commission. He’ll be pulling in the moderate left on his side.

European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) Group

One to watch. Czech MEP Jan Zahradil will lead the charge for the centre right group which is expected to gain in the next election with the exception of the British Conservative who will be left out should Britain leave at the end of March. With Brexit though, anything is possible and while the numbers might not add up should it go ahead, whatever the outcome, it will be interesting to see how the ERC pans out after May.

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE)

This one is complicated. ALDE are not in favour of the system, preferring a more transnational type of election process so they aren’t nominating one Spitzenkandidat, instead going for a number of candidates. Potential nominees are ALDE leader in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt, Xavier Bettel who is PM of Luxembourg, former Estonian PM’s Taavi Rõivas and Andrus Ansip and current EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Czech politician Věra Jourová and EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström are also being considered.

European Green Party (EGP)

The European Green Party (G/EFA group in the European Parliament) has nominated two Spitzenkandidaten – Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout and German MEP Ska Keller. Eickhout has been an MEP since 2009 and Keller has been in the Parliament since 2009 also. It may all about numbers for the green movement and they could fall fowl to the more conservative right that is expected to gain seats. Nevertheless, Keller and Eickhout are as strong a set of candidates you can get for the green parties and both will have a more solid mandate going into the elections, especially with the rise of consciousnesses on climate change issues.

GUE/NGL group

Belgian Nico Cue and Slovenian MP Violeta Tomič have been nominated for the GUE/NGL. Tomič is a member of the Levica party and sits in the United Left list in the Slovenian National Assembly. Cue is a former secretary general of the Metalworkers’ Union of Belgium.

ENF group

Italian Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini has said he would be interested in running for Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF group in the European Parliament) but it seems unlikely at this point.

The end result?

It may emerge that smaller groups and factions will nominate others but for the moment the case is a strong one for the status quo to prevail with one of the leading major groups being the winner. But what will be clear is that the process of Spitzenkandidaten itself will also be on trial for the first time and the outcome could be determined by who has influence in the parliament following on from the election results.

This information article was published with the support of the European Parliament in Ireland and in conjunction with the #thistimeimvoting campaign.

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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