Pascal LeTendre-Hanns looks at the Spitzenkandidat system in detail and why so many consider it a failure.
Back in 2014, at the time of the last European Elections, voters were told “this time it’s different”. For the first time, voters from across Europe would be able to influence the choice of President of the European Commission. Citizens would vote in the European Elections and then the Spitzenkandidat backed by the group that won the most seats (in 2014 this was the EPP), would have their candidate become Commission President. This was seen as a dramatic break from the previous system which was entirely controlled by member state governments.
So what went wrong?
Yet this system (known as the Spitzenkandidat or ‘lead candidate’ system) looks like it may already be on the way out. So what’s happened and why did this democratic innovation not deliver on people’s expectations?
Right from the start, the Spitzenkandidat system had to fight for its right to exist. This was for two reasons, one legal and one political.
The legal reason was that actually the whole premise of the Spitzenkandidat system was pretty shaky. It all comes down to Article 17(7) of the Lisbon Treaty. What does this say? Well it says that the Council should propose a candidate for the Commission Presidency to the European Parliament, while ‘taking into account’ the European Elections.
If you’re thinking that this kind of language is a bit ambiguous then you’ve really understood the core of the problem with the Spitzenkandidat system. Technically, the power to nominate the candidate still lies with the Council and what the Treaty was supposed to mean when it said that the European Elections should be taken into account is anybody’s guess. Certainly many member state governments have never been comfortable with the suggestion that it would mean having the European Parliament elections actually decide who should be Commission President.
It just got all too political
This is where we get into the political problem. As a result of this ambiguous writing, both the European Parliament and the Council claim that they have final authority over who gets the top job in the Commission and that the other institution should simply rubber-stamp their choice. Perhaps given this political conflict, the two institutions should have a clear, formal joint system for deciding on the appropriate candidate but we are nowhere near such a compromise. Instead both are confident that only they have the proper democratic mandate to make such a decision.
In 2014, the European Parliament won the battle. There was a clear campaign directed towards citizens to say that their voice would be heard when choosing the next Commission President. MEPs explained to member state governments that they would veto any candidate that was not the winning Spitzenkandidat. MEPs from different political groups rallied behind the EPP and their candidate Jean-Claude Juncker. Caught off-guard by such institutional strength, member states relented and decided that they had little choice but to accept the European Parliament’s decision (even if UK Prime Minister David Cameron did issue a lonely and pointless No vote during the relevant Council meeting).
Member states gang up
But this time, ahead of the 2019 European Elections, the Council is ready. Notably within the liberal group of the European Parliament (ALDE), the Spitzenkandidat system is as good as dead. How? Two of the major government leaders of the group, French President Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, worked together to kill off any backing for the system from liberal MEPs and the ALDE group overall. Macron in particular had a lot of leverage. His party having only been around since 2017, it wasn’t officially affiliated to any of the political groups within the European Parliament. ALDE very much wanted to have Macron on their side and so they had little choice but to agree to his conditions, one of which was to do away with the Spitzenkandidat system.
Though this was a political move in order to wrest back control over the European Commission presidency, it was also not unrelated to Macron’s seeming dislike of Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of ALDE in the European Parliament and the group’s Spitzenkandidat at the last European Elections. Verhofstadt is in many senses an unmatched speaker in favour of the European cause but he has also been in the political game for a long time and is regarded as too much a part of the ‘old guard’ by some.
As part of the agreement between Macron’s party, La République En Marche and ALDE, the liberals will not be presenting a Spitzenkandidat at the next elections and instead will apparently present the public with a range of candidates (for now this remains vague and we’ll have to wait and see to know what this really means).
What does this mean for the other party blocs and the Spitzenkandidat system as a whole? Well, without the backing of the liberal group, it could become pretty well impossible for any candidate to the Commission Presidency to get the necessary majority approval from the European Parliament. In essence, the shifting of the power balance from the Parliament to the Council is reflective of a shift inside the liberal group itself. Because the liberals are essential for forming a majority of the centre, the demands and preferences of that group can hold disproportionate weight. When those demands are being driven more by government leaders like Macron and Rutte than parliamentarians like Verhofstadt, then that moves the key bargaining and decision-making to the Council.
Therefore, having successfully ‘knocked out’ one the main groups in the European Parliament, the Council has greatly increased its ability to control the next choice of European Commission President.
The other reason the Council has been able to do this is because it’s not clear that many citizens will care. The Spitzenkandidat system was fairly obscure to your average European citizen. Its indirect nature mean that the link between people’s votes and the choice of Commission President was far from obvious. This is especially true when you consider that no candidate’s name appeared on the ballot paper (something that would be difficult to work around given the current legal set-up of European democracy). In some cases, as with the CDU in Germany or Labour in the UK, parties took no interest in their apparent Spitzenkandidat and did not even try to inform citizens, focusing instead on domestic issues.
Therefore even though the European Parliament was able to assert itself at the institution level, the reliance of European democracy on national systems to communicate with citizens, meant that the Spitzenkandidat system had essentially no hope of anchoring itself in citizens’ political expectations. The weakness of these roots has meant that at the time of the next elections, five years after the real establishment of the Spitzenkandidat system, the whole idea could be scrapped and very few will either notice or care.