If the EU struggles to win the hearts of citizens, much of the problem is down to its inability to communicate its achievements with the public. A faceless institution cannot get its messages through: if the EU is to bridge its “communication deficit”, it needs a visible leader who is able and willing to address the public directly. A call to action from Juuso Järviniemi.
That leader should be the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Though von der Leyen’s nomination was characterised by murky backroom dealings, by daring to enter Europe’s factory halls and town squares she can make herself remembered as a President who brought the Commission closer to the people.
Before the European elections last May, the different European party families nominated their lead candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) for Commission President: Manfred Weber for the centre-right EPP, Frans Timmermans for the socialists, and so on. By prescribing that one of the candidates should become the President after the elections, the Spitzenkandidaten process was meant to help democratise the nomination, and ensure that European citizens have had at least some opportunities to become familiar with the leading figure before they ascend to the throne.
Indeed, the candidates held a number of debates, including the May 15 debate broadcast by public-service channels in more than twenty countries. The leading contenders Weber and Timmermans also toured Europe extensively during the campaign to make themselves known to citizens. Ursula von der Leyen, whose name was pulled out of EU member state leaders’ back pocket in the July summit, weeks after the elections, had not done the same.
At the moment of her nomination for Commission President, von der Leyen did not even have a Twitter account. The next day, she created a profile and made her first tweet: “Hallo Europa! Hello Europe! Salut l’Europe!” If only she had said hello before the elections.
Both Weber and Timmermans prided themselves on being ‘close to the people’. During his campaign, Weber would often tell the story of how he spends weekends discussing with locals in his Bavarian home village. The story was a part of his pitch of “re-establishing the bond between the citizens and the European Union”. For his part, Timmermans told Online media platform, EurActiv that as the President, he would be visiting the member states “all the time”, “and not just in government buildings, but with the people, with institutions, with universities, with factories talking to workers”.
The spirit of Spitzenkandidaten, beyond the election period
Whether the lead candidates of 2019 would really have gone to the factories after their election, we will never know. What we do know is that the Commission now has a reasonably mediagenic leader – von der Leyen beats Manfred Weber any day, though Timmermans is a tough contest – whose presidency is overshadowed by the ‘original sin’ of not having been a Spitzenkandidat. Before Ursula von der Leyen could win the approval she needed from the European Parliament, she had to make up for that ‘sin’ by vowing to lead efforts to fix the lead candidate system for the May 2024 elections.
No matter what efforts von der Leyen makes, the success of the lead candidate system will always depend on national leaders’ respect for the principle, and on whether the system’s proponents in the European Parliament can stand their ground. Meanwhile, von der Leyen doesn’t need anyone’s permission to go meet citizens in different countries, and give interviews to local and national media while she visits.
The fundamental idea of the Spitzenkandidaten system is to strengthen the connection between European citizenry and the Commission President. If von der Leyen can help fix the system so it’s credible and operational again in 2024, she will have done a great service to European democracy. But by going out and speaking with citizens, she would ensure that the fundamental idea behind Spitzenkandidaten is put into practice consistently, and not just during election time. This would be an equally monumental contribution to a Europe of citizens: after all, a few weeks of campaigning every five years will never be enough for the public to truly get to know their European-level leaders if the leaders spend the rest of their time among themselves.
Fans of a democratically accountable European Commission still see von der Leyen as the person whose nomination spelled doom for Spitzenkandidaten. If she wishes, she has every opportunity to use the next four years to rewrite her story, and instead be remembered as the first Commission President who truly dared to speak to the people. The choice is entirely in von der Leyen’s hands.
Since Ursula von der Leyen started her mandate on 1 December, her calendar has been filled with high-level conferences, and meetings with key Brussels figures and national leaders. Leading the EU executive is undoubtedly a busy job, but when there is a will there is a way. In the next weeks, why should von der Leyen not make a speech in the Vilnius city square to discuss how her plans for a European minimum wage would benefit Lithuanians, or visit a coal-mining area to explain how her European Green Deal ‘ensures no-one is left behind’?