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The Uncertain Fate of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure

Updated: May 17

By Tobias Pardoen

In the complex world of European Union politics, choosing the President of the European Commission has often felt like a secret, non-democratic ceremony – almost like passing of the crown in a monarchy behind closed doors. But in 2014, a game-changer arrived with the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process. This process, linking the nomination of the European Commission President to the election result, yielded varied outcomes in 2014 and 2019. With the next election approaching, uncertainty looms, fueling debates about its future and relevance.

© EPA-EFE/Olivier Hoslet

A Mixed Bag in 2014

Before 2014, European Parliament elections were more about local issues, with political parties gearing up for national elections. Consequently, voters did not know much about European policies, leading to low turnouts. Dubbed "second-order elections" by political scientists, this phenomenon prompted the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten process via the Lisbon Treaty.

In this process, European political groups select a candidate for the European Commission President before the elections, presenting a recognizable 'face' to lead their political group during the electoral campaign. The candidate from the party family securing the highest vote share becomes the European Commission President. This Spitzenkandidaten process aimed to boost voter turnout and election visibility. However, reality failed to align with expectations.

The experiment saw mixed results in the 2014 elections. While it demonstrated improved electoral awareness among voters, research revealed a lack of a common EU-wide public sphere and shared media, undermining the process's efficacy. Notably, voter turnout marginally decreased from 42.97 per cent in 2009 to 42.61 per cent in 2014, a decline less pronounced than the nearly three-percentage-point drop observed in the 2004 elections.

Post-2014 elections, the Christen-Democrats (EPP) emerged as the largest party, setting the stage for Juncker's expected nomination as the new EU Commission president. Yet, resistance from Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Hungary in the European Council cast shadows of uncertainty. Merkel's Germany ultimately tipped the scales in favour of Juncker, marking a victory for the Parliament.

However, the European Council stressed no guaranteed future for the new process as it emphasised that ''it is an autonomous competence of the European Council to nominate the president.'' In the lead-up to the 2019 elections, the European Parliament made a clear stance, swearing their acceptance only for a Commission President who had undergone the Spitzenkandidat process. The European Council appeared not to be impressed. 

The 2019 European Elections signalled a positive departure, breaking the tradition of declining voter turnout percentages by surpassing the fifty per cent threshold, the highest since 1994. The Christen Democrats secured another victory, with Manfred Weber poised to be elected Commissioner in line with the Spitzenkandidaten system. However, the European Council veered off this trajectory, nominating Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission. Despite earlier commitments, the European Parliament elected von der Leyen, acknowledging the European Council's aversion to the Spitzenkandidat procedure.

A Contested Fate

As the dust settled after the elections of 2019, an unresolved question lingered - what lies ahead for the Spitzenkandidat procedure? Debates ensued, with some declaring its death, branding it "killed" and unsuccessful. Others argued for its "revival," deeming it "institutionally necessary." In June 2023, the European Parliamentary Research Service advocated for enhancing the Spitzenkandidat process, endorsing increased flexibility and adaptability.

Accordingly, the European Parliament proposed a binding agreement with the European Council to ensure the continuity of the Spitzenkandidat procedure, with a decision expected in December 2023.

Currently, the spotlight gravitates towards the Christian Dmocratic nomination. Ursula von der Leyen seems to be the frontrunner for the EPP's lead candidate position. Should she secure the EPP's Spitzenkandidat status and the party attain a plurality in the European elections, Von der Leyen's reappointment seems likely.

Recent projections signal that the EPP is poised to secure said plurality. However, the significance of all this is up in the air. European member states still show little interest in reviving the system. Moreover, most national governments seem to like her. All signs point to success for Von der Leyen.

Leadership in Flux

Decoding the importance of the Spitzenkandidat system is tricky, and feeling optimistic about its future is even more important. At the end of the day, the EU's 27 national leaders have the final say in Brussels. French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have already started poking his nose into it. If Ursula von der Leyen leads the EPP to a victory, leaders may refrain from interference. 

This could be spinned into a Spitzenkandidat win, but it might be a temporary relief. The delicate balance between what each country wants and what the whole EU wants makes the future of this election process in Brussels uncertain. The next time leaders are unsatisfied with the Spitzenkandidat, it could mean the end of the road for this supposedly democratic way of doing things in Brussels.

Sources: EurActiv, EUobserver, European Parliament, European Union Politics, The Economist, New York Times, and Politico Europe.

Written by Tobias Pardoen

April 2024

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