The failure this week of the spitzenkandidat process has caused huge division within Europe with many European leaders such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron calling for end to the process. This was only the tip of the iceberg to what was to come next with events in the European Parliament and talk of traditional backroom deals.  But is this really the most serious problem? I don’t think so.

How Does spitzenkandidat Work?

Spitzenkandidat was introduced after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty after the passing of the Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland. Spitzenkandidat is a German word for lead candidate which meant that each party grouping in the European Parliament would have to select one candidate to run as head of the executive (European Commission). The Spitzenkandidaten for the EPP was Bavarian, Manfred Weber, co-candidates Bas Eickhout and Ska Keller for the Greens/EFA, Frans Timmermans for the S&D, Guy Verhofstadt for Renew Europe, Violeta Tomic and Nico Cue for GUE/NGL and Jan Zahradil for the ECR. This would have been decided within the European Parliament after the European elections and with new sitting MEPs. However, these candidates are indirectly elected as head of the European Commission but are elected as MEPs. Similarly to many countries across Europe, a direct election (European elections) decide the sitting MEPs of the newly formed European Parliament. Therefore, after the European elections, the newly sitting MEPs in the European Parliament decide who is to be the next head of the European Commission by a secret ballot by voting for each different Spitzenkandidaten. What was so controversial about spitzenkandidat that caused chaos in the events of deciding the next head of the European Commission yesterday in the European Parliament?

Controversy In The European Parliament?

The division of people’s opinions in relation to the spitzenkandidat system all over Europe took a dramatic step yesterday after German Defence Minister, Ursula Von der Leyen was nominated as the European Commission president, despite not being an EPP spitzenkandidat for the presidency of the European Commission. This role was held by Manfred Weber who pulled out of the running to become president of the European Commission until he realised that he had not received enough support and pulled out of the running. The biggest element of events that took place yesterday that caused controversy was the rumoured backroom deals by people within the European Parliament. This led to further criticism about the democratic deficit of the EU and its institutions. Many arguments that arose included, what is the point of small nations such as Ireland being involved in the EU when they have minimal influence. While one must be cautious of fuelling further Euroscepticism, one must also recognise how Euroscepticism is fuelled. Euroscepticism has certainly being fuelled by the EU’s arrogance towards its own spitzenkandidat system. It disobeyed a part of the Lisbon Treaty that it signed and this doesn’t reflect well on the institutions of the EU. Despite the several candidates that ran for their respective party groupings, none of these candidates were nominated to become the head of the European Commission. For example, countries that are part of the V4 moved to prevent S&D candidate Frans Timmermans from becoming the head of the European Commission. Should spitzenkandidat be scrapped as it has been a flawed system?

Should Spitzenkandidat Be Scrapped?

One may argue that the spitzenkandidat system should be scrapped and a more logical system should be put in place to replace this flawed system. However, is it absolutely certain to say that spitzenkandidat is the only problem in the events that occurred yesterday? Some are suggesting that the European Council itself is a problem with their reported backroom deals and moves against spitzenkandidat by selecting a candidate (Ursula Von der Leyen) who wasn’t running as a spitzenkandidat for her respective party grouping (EPP). It can be said that a system should be introduced for each party to run different candidates and whichever party wins the most overall seats gets to select this candidate to become the next head of the European Commission. This would be a much easier system to explain to the voters across Europe and would avoid confusion and level out Euroscepticism. More information could also be given to voters across Europe about the different candidates that are running for the presidency of the European Commission as well as the different party groupings and their beliefs. From the start, leaders such as Angela Merkel expressed their disdain at the flawed spitzenkandidat system and demonstrated her further disregard for spitzenkandidat by abstaining on voting for the next head of the European Commission. Introducing such a system to replace spitzenkandidat like this system would also lead to the de-politicisation of the EU and eradicate backroom deals to get certain MEPs to become the next head of the European Commission. The current spitzenkandidat system involved different candidates from different parties running against each other to become the next head of the European Commission but wouldn’t be directly elected as head of the European Commission by the people. Instead, they would be elected after the European elections in the European Parliament. The different candidates such as Jan Timmermans, Guy Verhofstadt, Manfred Weber, Ska Keller and Bas Eischout faced off in a Eurovision debate in May pledging to become the next head of the European Commission. At this time, there was a lot of opposition to spitzenkandidat and was only fuelled further after the events in the European Parliament yesterday. While spitzenkandidat should be scrapped, this is not the only change that needs to be made within the EU.

Reforming The EU?

Without any doubt, reforming the spitzenkandidat system by replacing it is one out of many other areas that the EU needs to improve on by reform. Other areas include the cracking down on countries which do not respect basic human rights, de-politicisation of the EU and the democratic deficit of the EU which involves decision making within the EU. Why do these areas need particular attention and how can these areas of concern be reformed?

First of all, the EU must be tougher on countries which do not respect basic human rights and the rule of law such as Hungary and Poland. Over recent years, populists such as Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have been given too much impetus by the EU particularly their party grouping, the EPP. Over many years, Fidesz have been flaunting basic human rights without punishment from the EPP/EU as well as undermining the rule of law by appointing their own judges. At the time, Article 7 was invoked on Hungary and Poland which could have led to a suspension of Hungary and Poland’s voting rights but never went through. This further summed up the free rein that Hungary and Poland had been given in the European Parliament as well as their respective countries. Hungary has also declared homelessness as illegal as well as trying to keep migrants out of Hungary which was covered by my fellow Europa United contributor Brian Milne here. These actions have gone through time and time again with appeasement from the EU. It is time for the EU to step up and stand up to countries like Hungary or Poland which disrespect basic human rights and the rule of law. Candidate member states are not even allowed to consider applying to join the EU unless they respect components of the Acquire Communitaire within the Copenhagen Criteria which includes respecting basic human rights. A system that is similar to the Copenhagen Criteria should be introduced for current member states which would include suspending member states from the EU which disrespect basic human rights and not allowing them to re-join until they respect basic human rights. If stricter measures were imposed upon member states which disrespect basic human rights, the EU would be able to stand out to the world as a union of human rights and embracing of all cultures.

Second of all, the EU should de-politicise into the union that it first became when it was particularly an economic union rather than a political union. In recent years, it has become an economic giant and a political dwarf. However, it is growing to become a political giant. If the EU decided to de-politicise, it would decrease the negativity associated with the EU amongst many citizens across Europe which argue that the EU has become a talking shop and has become too politicised. This would also decrease the democratic deficit of the EU. One may argue that the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 led to the further politicisation of the EU after announcing plans for a federal currency and federal Europe. The controversies with populism over the years has only further increased the politicisation of the EU with populists using the European Parliament as a platform for fuelling Euroscepticism. A clear example of this would have been the Brexit referendum which contributed to the further politicisation of the EU.

It further became politicised over the years previous to that with the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in October 2008 in a referendum in Ireland after fears of the establishment of a federalised European army. The Lisbon Treaty was later passed in 2009 in a second referendum with concessions in relation to defence. The EU should also think about how it is to spend on its defence policy. It continues to spend billions and billions of taxpayers’ money without a federalised army. If it is to continue spending billions and billions of taxpayers’ money upon its defence policy, it should decide to either decrease that amount of money on defence or decide to form a federalised army with the same level of spending but with much more contributions from other member states. Fears have grown further and further over the possibility of a federalised army after Jean-Claude Juncker has said that a federalised army is the ‘sleeping beauty’ of the Lisbon Treaty. Without any doubt, the EU needs to think about how it decides to spend on its defence policy as well as the de-politicisation of the EU.

Another area which the EU needs to be reformed is how decisions are made and plans are drawn up. Within the European Commission, proposals are drawn up as they have been given the impetus by the European Parliament and the Council to go forward. Each country has 1 Commissioner representing them in the European Parliament. The recent Mercosur trade deal has caused huge controversy within small nations such as Ireland. This deal gives access to European markets for South American countries in relation to agriculture. This affects countries such as Ireland whose farming industry is the biggest industry of its respective country. Many people question how decisions are made within the EU for such trade deals. The democratic deficit of the EU is further fuelled as is Euroscepticism. Many Eurosceptics argue that decisions made in Brussels are dictated to particular governments within member states. While this is not true, the EU needs to analyse how certain trade deals will affect certain countries’ industries such as agriculture in Ireland. Over the years, particular treaties and trade deals have affected particular countries and the EU must analyse how certain trade deals and treaties affect different countries.

The lesson for the EU is, reform or be swallowed up by populism.

Atakan Uzun
A young Irish based blogger who is studying BSc Government and Politics at UCC, Ireland. Part of the Europa United social media team.

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