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Explainer: what is the Spitzenkandidat procedure?

Updated: May 17

By Daniela Belinschi

Edited by Imke Mentink

The European Union and its complex governing mechanisms have struggled with alleviating their “democratic deficit” and unfolded a series of practices aiming at enhancing democracy, transparency, and legitimacy to alleviate the democratic deficit. In this vein, although not robustly ingrained, the Spitzenkandidat procedure sets its sights on tying the results of the European Parliament elections and the nomination of a candidate for the European Commission. This way, democratically elected European Parliament gains even more relevance as a core body within the EU.


In a nutshell

The European Union operates as an intricate organism, governed by a meticulously balanced array of institutions. The functions and organizational structures of each are defined in the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which both enjoy a constitutional status akin to national constitutions. These treaties not only establish the separation of powers but also institute a system of checks and balances.

Within this framework, the European Council assumes the role of setting the

strategic direction and priorities for the Union. The Council of the European Union, representing states at the ministerial level, along with the Parliament, which serves as the democratic mechanism expressing citizens' will, hold joint legislative powers.

The European Commission, in tun, is deemed the executive power of the union and is considered the motor of European integration. It wields the sole power of initiative, thus driving the European project forward.

Birth and blueprint

The European Union has been evolving in a direction aimed at bringing citizens closer to the decision-making process, and implicitly, the leadership of the Union. From the total absence of connection between the President of the Commission and the political composition of the elected Parliament, to an extensive interpretation of the Art. 17(7) TEU, systematic improvements were implemented. The goal is to make the EU more democratic by increasing the importance of citizens' votes.

The Spitzenkandidat procedure was only introduced with the Treaty of Lisbon (2007), thus marking the beginning of the procedure as it is known today. As such, following the wording of Article 17(7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the European Council, acting by qualified majority, shall propose a candidate for the Commission Presidency “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations”.

This provision was “creatively” interpreted by the main political forces during the 2014 elections as they departed from conventional methods, and advanced leading candidates from internal ranks. These candidates played a pivotal role in leading the electoral campaign, personifying the values and objectives of the political force they represented to the EU citizens.

The newly established practice materialised with Mr Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as the Commission’s President. The party he had been the lead candidate to - The European People’s Party - won the elections.

Thus, Spitzenkandidat is the lead candidate of a political party in the European elections, representing the party's campaign and, if successful, becoming the proposed candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.

A component in the EU's democratic framework

The European Parliament assumes a position at the heart of the EU’s functioning, embodying the essential pillar of representative democracy outlined in the TEU. As more power is conferred to this body, it becomes the cornerstone for the attributes of legitimacy. As such, the nomination of the President of the Commission is not a mere institutional procedure, but an instrument of political engagement.

The Spitzenkandidat procedure enhances transparency by introducing lead candidates actively engaging in the electoral process. It ensures voters become familiar with candidates to the EU's executive. This not only makes the electoral process clearer but also boosts the visibility of the Commission as an institution.

On the flip side, the procedure also poses the risk of political gridlock, as the candidate from the more prominently represented party may struggle to secure majority support in the Parliament, potentially impeding the efficiency of the decision-making process.

Crucially, the procedure hinges on a specific interpretation of Article 17(7) TEU and it is not obligatory to adhere to it. This was evident in 2019 when Ursula von der Leyen was elected as the President of the Commission, despite not being the lead candidate of the European People’s Party, and thus - not being elected through the Spitzenkandidat procedure.

Written by Dana Bellinschi

May 2024

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