With the negotiations for the successor of President Juncker in the most powerful executive office in the EU, being in full swing, and the sands trickling in the upcoming European Council summit in which EU leaders are expected to decide who will captain the ship of the European Commission (EC) for the next five years, much ink has been shed during the months on the Spitzenkandidat system. Ahead of the 2014 and 2019 European Parliament elections, the European political parties based on Art. 17(7) TEU nominated their candidates for the EC’s Presidency running campaigns across the Member States in an effort to increase the EU’s visibility, and eventually the election’s turnout.
Yet, the idea of the political initiative does not echo a unanimous agreement, been subject to varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some express their scepticism towards the process’ effectiveness to bridge the gap between the EU and European citizens and address the so-called EU’s democratic deficit. In view of this, they seem to denounce the very substance of the Spitzenkandidat system. Instead, they express the belief that the establishment of transnational lists would democratise European politics. They are clearly mistaken.
While one swallow does not make a summer, in 2014, the downward trend of the turnout was halted, but not reversed, while in 2019 more than 50% of EU citizens eligible to vote took part in the elections, achieving the highest turnout in 20 years. In a Eurobarometer survey conducted before the elections, more than 60% of the respondents agreed that the Spitzenkandidat system brings more transparency and increases the EC’s legitimacy, perceiving the institutional innovation as a significant development for European democracy. Meanwhile, according to a 2014 post-election survey (Eurobarometer), 5% of the European electorates who exercised their right to vote, mentioned that they went to the polls in order to “influence the choice of the President of the European Commission”. Even if the result mentioned above cannot be considered in absolute terms as spectacular, one might say that it is just the beginning for something else, more dynamic, substantial, and democratic. Certainly, not only did the lead candidates process result in this development, but it contributed to a certain extent, involving indirectly European citizens in the selection of the EC’s President.
At the same time, the Spitzenkandidat process fostered the EU’s salience, as the lead candidates were offered a stage to present their views on various challenges that the EU faces. They functioned as a counterbalance to the populist and Eurosceptic voices while aiming to deconstruct their myths; put differently, the lead candidates tried to cover a space of public deliberation which would be otherwise captured by populists. For instance, Guy Verhofstadt’s pre-election video message posted on Twitter in which he stated, “Your choice is clear: vote for Putin’s Puppets or for a big pro-European force that will defend our values and #RenewEurope!” was retweeted more than 1,500 times.
During the election days on 23-26 May, the official hashtag of Manfred Weber, #thepowerofwe had more than 200 references. Back in 2014, President Jean-Claude Juncker was the Spitzenkandidat mostly mentioned (25,387). He was the most mentioned tweeter (@junckereu) and the top hashtag (#juncker), receiving even more attention than the official hashtag of the European elections. In the meantime, the televised debates that were organised between the Spitzenkandidaten been probably the most important and impressive moments of the campaigns in 2014 and 2019, was a trending topic amongst social media users. The hashtag of the 2019 Eurovision Presidential Debate #telleurope enticed more mentions 14,520 mentions, while the 90-minute Maastricht debate taken place on 29 April received 3,385 mentions. In 2014, the figures stood at 6,168 and 3,853 mentions respectively. Although these electoral debates should not be considered as like the primary elections in the US, they are in embryonic form with the European citizens being able to listen to the candidates that aspire to lead Europe and interact with them through the social media.
When it comes to the printed media outlets, the Spitzenkandidat process turned out to be a relevantly visible talking point in the course of the pre- and post-election period. More concretely, from 7 March to 31 May 2014, 635 articles were published on the issue across Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the UK in a sample of a tabloid, a centre-right, a centre-left, and a regional press for each Member State mentioned above.
Although not perfect, the Spitzenkandidaten process of 2014 attributed clearer democratic and more legitimate mandate to President Juncker, strengthening the EC’s leadership and resulting in more democratization. A combination of presidential and parliamentary elements’ system was employed. On the one hand, the candidate representing the European political party that won the elections needed the absolute majority in the European Parliament. On the other hand, the lead candidates ran a personalized presidential-style election campaign, holding their manifestos and presenting their electoral programs. In this sense, it rendered the EU more democratic.
However, much more effort needs to be made in terms of time that should be devoted to the campaign itself, resources (e.g. financing and logistics to the European political parties), and more importantly, the political will of the national parties not to build upon their campaigns around national issues. The campaigns of the national parties for the European elections should be set in coordination with the Europarties around the common challenges the EU citizens face jointly. In this context, the Spitzenkandidat process should not be perceived as a silver bullet which can cure all at once the EU’s legitimacy deficiencies. Without depreciating the linguistic or cultural barriers, and the subjective sense of we-feeling, there is a potential dynamism driven by political innovation.
EU Heads of State or Government are expected to nominate the President of the Commission amongst others for the next institutional cycle in the upcoming European Council summit. When doing so, they have to take into account the elections to the European Parliament, as Art. 17(7) states explicitly. Except for this, they should also consider that a potential abandon of the Spitzenkandidat system would be a step back in the direction of less transparent and inclusive decision-making made behind closed doors. As the European Parliament seems ready to reject any candidate for the EC’s Presidency who was not lead candidate, an inter-institutional conflict between the EU national governments and the European Parliament would be a gift to populists. The row would be seen by them as a sideshow of the EU’s inability to reach a compromise on relevantly simple issues. The EU is active on many fronts to confront another one. It can do better than agreements behind closed doors; we, the European citizens, deserve better than this.
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.