Spitzenfreude

EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

An exterior view of the EU Commission headquarters, also called Berlaymont, in Brussels, November 25, 2016.

EU Council begins talks on Spitzenkandidaten system


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A week after the European Parliament rejected the idea of a Pan-European MEPs list, the next item up for debate revolved around the procedure to elects the president of the European Commission.

As the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union hasn’t changed in purely legal terms, the procedure has not changed. According to what has been etched in stone, the European Council is and remains the institution that proposes the candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, while taking into account the European Parliamentary elections. Legally speaking, the choice remains up to the EU-member states’ heads of state to decide on their candidate.

Strasbourg cannot do anything but approve the choices made by EU leaders in a “binary manner” thus just by approving or rejecting the candidate, placing the decision to a purely “party politics level”. In 2014, the leading candidates – known by the German Spitzenkandidaten – system will not change the need for the future president of the EU to secure support from the European Council and the European Parliament.

According to that system that was applied for the first time when the current president, Jean-Claude Juncker, ran for the post, the European political parties have to put forward a party candidate that will campaign under the party’s flag for the top position of the European Commission.

The parties that are currently represented in the European Parliament, along with the European Council, will have to decide what kind of parliamentary majority the European People’s Party (EPP) will be able to achieve after the May 2019 elections, as an absolute majority for the EPP would be critical for the centre-right candidate.

The European Parliament’s vote last week showed that the MEPs are determined to reject non-Spitzenkandidaten, meaning the candidates that are not nominated by the political parties. 

The EPP is, for the moment, barely holding on to its majority as the largest party among EU leaders, with 9 heads of state coming from the centre right political family. Austria’s newly-elected Sebastian Kurz, Bulgaria’s rotating presidency holder Boyko Borissov, Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic, Cyprus’ re-elected president Nicos Anastasiades, German Chancellor Angela MerkelVictor Orban of Hungary, who opposed the Spitzenkandidaten idea back in 2014, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Romanian premier Klaus Ioannis that will face elections in 2019, and Spain’s recently re-elected Mariano Rajoy

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has eight positions in the European Council, with Belgium’s Charles Michel is up for election in 2019, the same day Europeans will elect their MEPs.

Denmark’s Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Estonia’s Jüri Ratas, Finland’s Juha Sipilä. Luxembourg’s Xavier Better, and Slovakia’s Miro Cerar are expected to face elections in 2018, leaving only the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands as secure seats for ALDE through 2019.

Teaming with the Party of the European Socialists (PES), the second political power in the chamber and third in the Council, would surpass the number of EPP members in the European Council and European Parliament, and could take the Spitzenkandidat away from the EPP.

The European Council needs to take the discussion further and provide answers concerning the Spitzenkandidaten system, but as the discussion is ongoing the European political families are beginning to float candidates’ names.

The leaders will at some point have to decide if the decision in 2019 will exclude the current heads of state by forcing them to resign in order to campaign across Europe.Any such action could “possibly exclude many capable candidates for the job,” according to an EU official. Furthermore, the leaders and MEPs have on their minds the importance of retaining a geographical and gender balance to the EU roles.

An informal get-together of European leaders on February 23 will give an idea of where they stand concerning the Spitzenkandidaten process, but no decision is expected to be made despite a number of leaders having come out against the idea. The UK and Hungary opposed the concept back in 2014, but today fears have grown that the leaders would be obliged to give the green light to controversial candidates of extreme far-right parties such as Marine Le Pen.

French President Emmanuel Macron still has to position his party within the European political family as Macron’s ‘La République En Marche!’ has yet to choose a political home that could play a big role in 2019’s choice for both the European Council and the European Parliament.

Until he does so, he will be excluded from nominating his own candidate for the top EU job. 

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