The European People’s Party (EPP) presented its Campaign Director for the 2019 European elections to the press last week. Though it has been long announced that EPP Vice-President Dara Murphy was being tasked with the job, it was the first time the campaign director was meeting the press in his new capacity.

In Ireland, the Fine Gael politician has served as a Teachta Dála for the Cork North–Central constituency since the 2011 general election, and has previously served as Minister of State for European Affairs and Data Protection from 2014 to 2017 and Lord Mayor of Cork from 2009 to 2010.

Journalists spent some time discussing transnational lists with Murphy, but the mood at the EPP ground floor reception area swung like a pendulum between ‘No’ and ‘Definitely not yet’.

Murphy did reiterate the commitment that the EPP’s candidate for the position of President of the European Commission, known as the ‘Spitzenkandidat’, would be elected at the 7-8 November party congress in Helsinki later this year, leaving no room for a postponement of the decision.

The EPP remains committed to the Spitzenkandidat system, which means that whatever European Party wins more seats in the European Parliament elections, will see their candidate named President of the European Commission.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, on the left, and Martin Selmayr, his Head of Cabinet.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, on the left, and Martin Selmayr, his Head of Cabinet.

Shifting alliances, European political forces trading member parties and grand plans of France’s Emmanuel Macron, could affect the current picture in the next year, but most in Brussels expect see another EPP Commission President to take over from incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker who has repeatedly said he will not run again.

The EPP has held the lead in number of seats won in the European elections since 1999, before which the Socialist party reigned supreme since 1974, but the Spitzenkandidat system only came into place in the last elections of 2014.

Many names are being heard in Brussels for the position; some are very theoretical, and others very ambitious. The range, from Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier (who lost the race to Spitzenkandidat against Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014), to Ireland’s Enda Kenny, Europe’s financial growth wizard Jyrki Katainen, the EPP Group’s Chairman Manfred Weber, and even Europe’s almighty Angela Merkel echoing in the corridors of Brussels. Cristine Lagarde’s name has also been thrown into the hat, as has former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb’s, and that of First Vice-President of the European Parliament Mairead Mcguinness.

A contest between Germany, France, Ireland, and Finland, so far, but there are also some other names being thrown around.

The question of whether the EPP would be observing the tradition of having a candidate who had previously served as a head of state, was not entertained by Murphy. Indeed it is a potentially a dangerous question at a time of such uncertainty.

Murphy also refused to comment on any particular candidate, but did say that there would be a cut-off date for candidates who will need to officially express their interest to their party. This deadline is expected about a month before the Helsinki Congress.

As discussions on the Spitzenkandidat progress and the transnational lists continue, and candidates begin to become more vocal, the EPP – like all EU parties, is faced with several challenges. One obstacle the party, and in turn Murphy, may be faced with is how to step into the shoes of the most famous man in the European Commission (sorry President Juncker but it’s true). Martin Selmayr hijacked the show and ran Juncker’s campaign in the run up to the 2014 elections, creating tension within the Party at the time.

Selmayr, sometimes comically referred to as ‘the monster’ by Juncker himself, could very well go on to become Secretary-General of the Commission next term, but if you were to ask him what he’s going to be doing in the next 18 months – other than serving as the Commission president’s right hand, he’d probably respond that,  “We have an election to win.”

Murphy will face the difficult task of keeping the job title and asserting his campaign plan on whichever candidate is elected, and staying on to lead the campaign irrespective of who that candidate is.

No doubt he comes with vast experience and gravitas, and the backing of those who matter at the EPP Party, but will it be enough to take on the Selmayrs of this world that sometime come hand-in-hand with powerful candidates and a plan of their own?

Ultimately, if we go by statistics of 2014, the candidate and the campaign are unlikely to affect the European elections significantly.

The structure is such that people vote for their national parties without much – if any – notice of who they are affiliated to at the European level, and who the spitzen candidate for their party is.

The EPP is trying to change that, and make sure the candidate becomes not just relevant at the national level, but a factor that will affect voters’ decisions. This will no doubt be the campaign’s single most challenging task. For the future of Europe, and improving the public sentiment towards the EU – this is certainly more important than anything else.