The Spitzenkandidat System, Dying in the Face of Brussels’ Indifference

Bernardo de Miguel

5 mins - 3 de Octubre de 2023, 07:00

The system of electing the president of the European Commission from among the leading candidates in European Parliament elections is in danger of being abandoned for the 2024 elections. The novel system, dubbed the German spitzenkandidat (or spitzenkandidaten, plural), was intended, according to its supporters, to make one of the most important appointments in European politics more transparent and to bring the process closer to a public that usually chooses to abstain en masse in European elections. But with only nine months to go before the 9 June 2024 elections, there is little movement to jump-start a process that is dying amidst Brussels’ indifference.

Most European parties enthusiastically embraced the idea of nominating their Commission nominees in advance, and the system was successfully launched in 2014. But in 2019 it was met with resistance from the European Council, led by French president Emmanuel Macron, and the candidates of the three most voted parties (popular, socialist, and liberal) were discarded in favour of the German conservative Ursula von der Leyen, who had not even stood for election. Parliament reluctantly approved this decision by a narrow majority of only nine votes.

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That fiasco, coupled with Von der Leyen’s chances of being re-elected by the Council next year, has cooled the desire to repeat the same experience in the 2024 elections. In principle, the People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists (S&D), the two groups most likely to win the elections, support the candidate system. But there are doubts as to whether they will finally use it in the next elections and, for the time being, they do not plan to launch the election of their candidates in the short term.

“I think the Spitzenkandidaten system is valid, but as long as it is respected, and that does not depend only on us,” said Socialist leader in the European Parliament Iratxe García last week in an interview with La Stampa newspaper. “I would like to present it, but there must be a guarantee that the method is respected,” added the Spanish MEP. 

In the May 2014 elections, the Socialists nominated their candidate (Martin Schulz) in November of the previous year. A similar timeframe to that of the People’s Party in the 2019 elections (Manfred Weber). For next year’s elections, the process has not yet been set in motion, pending whether the candidate system will be applied for a third time or shelved until the winds are more favourable to this option.

Macron’s liberals, who were the third most voted force in 2019, are as reluctant as they were five years ago to use the system. The French president had made its use conditional on the creation of transnational lists in the European elections, an innovation that, for now, the EPP rejects.

Another factor working against the spitzenkandidat is that the system has so far had little impact on public opinion. When it was launched in 2014, the lowest turnout rate (42.61%) in the history of European Parliament elections was recorded. Five years later, turnout rose eight points (to 50.66%). But a recent European Parliament report acknowledges that there is no evidence that the increased mobilisation was due to the presence of Commission candidates. And in fact, according to polls cited by the report, between 69% and 78% of voters did not know to which political parties the different candidates pertained

Even so, the European Parliament remains committed to the spitzenkandidaten system wherever possible, among other reasons, because it gives it much more power compared to the European Council. The report suggests several ways to revive the process, which would involve, above all, an agreement between the Parliament and the Council on their respective responsibilities in the appointment of the Commission president.

The traditional method of appointment, enshrined in the Treaty (Article 17.7), consists of the Council electing by qualified majority (18 countries representing at least 65% of the EU population) the person proposed for the Commission presidency, and the Parliament must approve his or her appointment by majority vote. The spitzenkandidat formula restricts the Council’s ability to choose from among the candidates who have led the European political parties’ election campaign for the Parliament.

The future of the parliament-driven system will largely depend on von der Leyen’s decision on whether or not to opt for a second term, a dilemma she says she will resolve by the end of this year or early 2024. If the current president were to agree to be the electoral candidate of her party, the EPP, the candidate method could be re-launched. 

But that would expose Von der Leyen to the erratic leadership of her party chairman, fellow German Manfred Weber, who is as quick to threaten an alliance with the far right as he is to renew the vows of his relationship with socialists and liberals. Von der Leyen would also become a clear party candidate, with the risk of losing the support of other groups that she has enjoyed in the current legislature.

Another option on the table is for the EPP, with the tacit acquiescence of the Socialists, to assume the German’s candidacy as its own but without forcing her to undergo a primary process or stand for election. This would be a way of keeping the spitzenkandidat alive, albeit artificially and without tangible political consequences. In that case, the spitzenkandidat model would continue to hibernate at least until 2029. 
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