In defence of the Spitzenkandidaten process

EPA-EFE//OLIVIER HOSLET

A view of the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels.

In defence of the Spitzenkandidaten process


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Emmanuel Macron is right when he does not trust that Manfred Werber would be a good President of the European Commission. I would certainly not vote for Weber: during his campaign he remained grey, he was populist when he made promises he could not deliver without the amendment of the Lisbon Treaty and until his campaign he cohabited pretty well within the EPP with adversaries of the EU such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party.

Weber created an impression of himself that he is a politician to whom values of democracy are mere bargaining chips to achieve power. He shut his eyes before engorging independent media, institutions of checks and balances for the sake of enjoying Fidesz’s votes in EPP, and only made its membership suspended when Fidesz’s presence started to risk his candidacy.

The recent European elections are satisfactory in terms that anti-European populists, Salvini, Le Pen, Orbán could not have become a substantial force in the European Parliament. On the other hand, no one could argue either, that the worries that made many Europeans vote for these parties have disappeared or that they have been addressed properly.

The battle might have been won at the 2019 election, but the war is far from being over. In some countries, in Macron’s France too, these anti-EU parties gained the biggest number of votes. The frustration of millions of Europeans by the EU institutions is a complex phenomenon, but we may agree that one of the reasons is that people do not feel that they are in charge. Regrettably, they are right.

The EPP, S&D, ALDE, and other parties could not have contested the elections, but citizens had to vote for national parties. Still, Europeans were told that Weber is the top-candidate of EPP for the top position, and voters may have opted for EPP’s national party to assist Weber to become president.

Others may have liked Frans Timmermans thus voted for a Social-democrat party.  What do these citizens see now? They see that heads of states and governments want to abandon their votes. In the meantime, nationalist parties are campaigning with the pledge of giving back power to the citizens and breaking down the power of the political elite. Regrettably, people indeed see again political elite encroaching competences instead of respecting the decision made by millions of Europeans. This will in the future further reinforce the nationalists.

If the Spitzenkandidaten process will be abandoned, and candidates to the Presidency of the Commission will be an internal matter of the Council, the new president of the Commission will try to please the heads of states and governments again instead of pleasing the European citizens.

The heads of states and governments have often different interests than the citizens, as their objective to get re-elected will always prevail over community interests. This is the reason for numerous heads of states and governments blaming the European institutions for failures, often for their own failures as we witnessed in respect to the failure of the Lisbon Strategy. It is also a mistake to think that the Council will choose a better candidate than political parties do.

Jean-Claude Juncker, who was elected under the Spitzenkandidat-system, was not any worse (actually, he was better) than Romano Prodi or José Manuel Barroso who were both proposed by the Council alone. The arguments referring to the Lisbon Treaty is also weak. Indeed, the Lisbon Treaty does not even mention a term of “Spitzenkandidat”. The Treaty, however, obliges the Council has to take into account the election of the European Parliament without elaborating on the details.

The Lisbon Treaty does not forbid the Council either to accept the candidate proposed by the Parliament. Thus, the European Council is entitled “to take into account” the European election with respecting the Spitzenkandidaten-process. I would also argue against the notion that lack of administrative experiences should prevent Weber to become President.

Should such a condition prevail, neither of the two latest presidents of the US, nor the current Ukrainian president would be eligible for the post. Moreover, a former minister of the economy who held the position for one year only, like Macron himself, could not be eligible to become president of the Republic.

In a democracy, criteria to get elected to a position must be defined in laws and must be made public far ahead of the elections. Setting criteria after the poll is closed, is anything but worthy to an institution that is so proud of being democratic.  The result may be a less good president, we don’t know yet, but we do not doubt the US presidency because of what we think about the current president. Democracy, however, also means that people may learn from mistakes they make voting in the wrong way. But deciding instead of the people will not enable anyone to learn.

The “founding fathers” of the EU, while they performed an outstanding job, also paid much attention to their own power through a strong Council. The challenge before Macron’s generation is to transfer a part of its power to European institutions.

A short-sighted decision by the European Council to abandon the election-results under the Spitzenkandidat-system could feed well the hunger for power of national leaders on the one hand and it would be another nail in the coffin of the EU on the other.

The recent and forthcoming battles within the EU will be fought between the nationalists and the integrationists. The nationalist part is represented by the major antagonists to Macron, who has taken the position of the leader of the integrationists. He should not compromise his visions by joining the nationalist group for the sake of achieving an objective that is agreeable in substance, but that also contrasts his vision about a strong, competitive European Union.

If Macron dislikes the results of the latest elections, instead of abandoning them, he should better start fighting for the redesign of future elections, in which national parties contest national seats, and European parties contest the European positions, not only seeking for seats in the European Parliament, but also for high positions such as president of the European Commission.

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