Will the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) concept survive the EP elections?

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Credit: Euroepan Parliament

Credit: Euroepan Parliament


1. How do you assess the idea of having the Spitzenkandidaten (or as we call it now, lead candidates) process, especially taking into account that the idea was based on a notion of strengthening democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions?

2. Do you think that somebody from the current lead candidates will really  become the President of the Commission or perhaps not, and why?


Eric Maurice, Manager of the Brussels Office, Robert Schuman Foundation

1. The Spitzenkandidat process derives from one interpretation of the Lisbon, by the European Parliament and European political parties, that is not shared by many EU leaders. The treaty says that the leaders, “taking into account the result of the elections”, proposes a candidate who has to be elected by the Parliament.

But this pre-supposes that the Commission is the EU executive, which it is not, and that people who vote for national parties and candidates in fact vote for the Spitzenkandidat, which they don’t because they don’t know the European lead candidates. The system is also blurred by the fact that parties then share the presidency of the institution that is the subject of the elections – the Parliament.

Macron has a point when he says that the Spitzenkandidat process would be more consistent with transnational lists. But is European democratic system ready for that?

2. Leaders have the upper hand because they have no treaty obligation to pick up a Spitzenkandidat, especially as we know that the main party, the EPP, will lose seats and will have to find a majority with 2 or 3 parties in the Parliament. The leaders can decide than taking this into account, in the spirit of the treaty, they have to find a candidate that can suit the 3 or 4 parties that are necessary to reach a majority.

Leaders also said last year there is no automaticity for the process. If they accept it a second time after 2014 it will have become automatic; so they have a long term incentive to reject the candidates this year.

But Weber remains the default candidate as long as no other one can get enough support in the Council and ahead of the vote in the Parliament. It will mostly depend on whether Barnier (because he’s the main challenger) can get German support, or whether a third candidate could rise in the last minute – why not a woman. Look for the EPP woman, if there is one. We have also to take into consideration the other top positions, which include the ECB presidency, and how Germany wants to balance its influence in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Katjana Gattermann, Assistant Professor Political Communication & Journalism, Amsterdam Centre for Contemporary European Studies (ACCESS EUROPE), University of Amsterdam

1. Having pan-European lead candidates is generally a good idea. Yet, my research in Netherlands shows that in 2014 only few citizens were actually aware of the lead candidates; i.e. only those who had high knowledge of the EU and campaign-specific information. There was some media coverage in several European countries, but it is difficult to say how prominent the lead candidates were in 2014 since it was the very first time they were standing and we had no comparison to before. There are of course some difficulties for generating attention at a pan-European level as regards language (in televised debates or on social media). In addition, we know from existing research that national parties hardly campaign with the respective pan-European lead candidates (e.g., on election posters). So, from an electoral campaign perspective, more should be done to mobilize European citizens (as intended by the European Parliament). It remains to be seen to what extent this is the case this year as we are still in the campaigns.

2. This is very difficult to say. I cannot make a prognosis, but I think two factors are important to take into account in the weeks after the elections, which work hand in hand: there needs to be support for the procedure, that is the Council needs to accept the will of the Parliament in nominating the candidate of the largest party ; and there needs to be support for the political decision, i.e. the candidate. There may not be a parliamentary majority for any of the current lead candidates. Likewise, if the Council proposes someone else, there needs to be a parliamentary majority – and in that case also the parliament needs to accept that the procedure may not be implemented as intended.

Ted Reinert, Foreign Policy Think Tank Researcher, Analyst, Expert on European Politics

1. I think the added value of the Spitzenkandidat process is that it facilitates a democratic campaign around European issues for the European Parliament elections. That hopefully raises interest in the elections and raise the salience of European issues, not just national ones. An increase in turnout this year would fortify that argument. That said, because citizens are voting for national parties not European lists, it’s a bit artificial. The European Council is the institution closest to the voters since it’s made up of the leaders of national governments and its composition is updated more frequently as governments change during the term of a Commission. The Commission president will have to be widely acceptable to the member state governments, and if the Council chooses someone other than the winner of the Spitzenkandidat process, I don’t think that person’s democratic legitimacy to run the Commission is questionable.

2. I assume the European People’s Party will be the largest party group. Manfred Weber is the most likely individual to become Commission president because he’ll have won the Spitzenkandidat race. That said, he’s not the best-suited consensus candidate for the expected governing coalition of the center-right, the center-left, and liberals, and I think it’s slightly more likely that somebody else will become Commission president. Leading the European People’s Party in the Parliament, Weber tolerated Viktor Orbán’s authoritarianism for too long. ALDE and President Macron aren’t fans of the Spitzenkandidat system and would rather elevate one of their own as a consensus candidate. I could also see an alternative, less conservative center-right figure like Michel Barnier emerge as the nominee out of negotiations. A case for Weber would be that after a European election in which nationalists and populists are likely to increase their vote share but the center-right will partner with the center-left and liberals to govern, making him Commission president would nod to the energy on the right and he would be harder for the nationalists to attack as a liberal bogeyman.

Anthony ZitoProfessor of European Public Policy, Co-director of the Jean Monnet Centre, Newcastle University

The European Parliament pulled off a major institutional victory through the formulation of the Spitzenkandidaten process and therefore has gained a strong stake in making sure the process delivers, despite various member state concerns.  The Commission has backed the process as well, and so it is likely to survive with this momentum. At the same time, however, as with many of the Parliament’s and the EU’s ambitions in terms of strengthening democratic legitimacy, the impact remains more on paper  and more theoretical for the foreseeable future.


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