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Why the 2024 European Elections Are the Final Chance for the Spitzenkandidaten

Updated: May 17

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By Ville Rajala

Edited by Mélanie Fourtanier & Federico Durante


The Spitzenkandidaten process was set up to enhance the legitimacy of how the President of the European Commission is appointed. However, the process is now facing a serious headwind. The lack of a legally binding text, the highly informal process, and the fact that the European Council can legally appoint the candidate are among the many flaws. Therefore, the 2024 elections are the Spitzenkandidaten’s last chance for survival.


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Spitzenkandidaten: Great Intention But Flawed From the Get-Go


The Spitzenkandidaten process was initiated to increase the democratic legitimacy of the procedure of how the Commission President is appointed.


Despite the long German word, the Spitzenkandidaten process is rather straightforward. The political groups nominate their lead candidate(s) for the role of the Commission President.


After the European Parliament (EP) election, the winning political group is entitled to the prestigious task of ‘officially’ nominating their lead candidate as a candidate for the role of Commission President.


However, in the Spitzenkandidaten process, there are a couple of major flaws. Firstly, according to EU treaties, only the European Council can officially appoint a candidate.


The European Council can appoint anyone, as long as they will “[take] into account the elections to the European Parliament" in the process of doing so. Hitherto, the European Council fulfilled the requirement by giving the job to someone from a similar party affiliation as the winning party.


Secondly, there is no legally binding text setting out the procedure. This means that the only way the Spitzenkandidaten process could be moulded into the institutional psyche (also known as Rules of Procedure) of the EP and the European Council is repetition.


Despite the inaugural iteration in 2014 of the Spitzenkandidaten process being a success, in 2019 the process fell apart right after the election, illustrating that institutionalising a nebulous new procedure is not easy, especially since the procedure is used only every five years.


During one five-year EP legislature, many national elections happen in the Member States. These elections often result in a new head of state or government in the respective Member States.


The elections, therefore, change the political composition of the European Council, which means that support for any informal agreement to uphold the Spitzenkandidaten process can be undone by one dissenting new voice.


The idea behind the Spitzenkandidaten process was to increase the democratic legitimacy of the appointment procedure for the role of Commission President.


However, as there is no legally binding text setting out the steps of the process, it will remain informal and unenforceable, as the EP can not hold the European Council account for whether they will use the process or not.


The 2024 Elections - The Final Change


The very existence of the Spitzenkandidaten process is running against the clock. At the upcoming 2024 EP election, it will be a decade since the Spitzenkandidaten process was first used ten years ago when Juncker was selected with a successful European People’s Party (EPP) nomination in 2014.


It is still possible to argue that the failure in 2019 was just a fluke, a one-off disagreement between the EP and the European Council. But the process cannot survive two strikes in a row, hence it has to be successfully used in the upcoming elections in order to preserve its institutional credibility.


In politics, time runs on a different trajectory. In a single year, so many key political developments happen that it is impossible to remember everything — a year starts to look like a decade.


The problem is that if a calendar year in politics is a decade, then ten years is a century. The significance of the failure of the Spitzenkandidaten process in 2019 is monumental.


In the upcoming elections, the EP is trying to sell as legitimate a procedure which was last used ten years ago (or a century ago in politics-time).


Although MEPs are eager to revise and innovate the EP election system by introducing pan-European voting lists and strengthening the Spitzenkandidaten process, many Member States continue opposing such revisions.


Despite broad support in the EP for revising the electoral process, cracks have started to appear also from within. The liberal wing, for instance, is agonising over their election strategy. The Renew group in the EP is at odds with its pan-European umbrella organisation ALDE, which has made its stance on the Spitzenkandidaten process ambivalent.


Lastly, the survival of the Spitzenkandidaten hinges on one significant variable. This variable is Ursula von der Leyen. The current EU executive chief has stated that she is not planning to run as EPP’s lead candidate for the 2024 election.


Her unwillingness to run as EPP’s lead candidate is a blow to the credibility of the Spitzenkandidaten process ahead of electoral campaigns in the run-up to the actual EP election. However, a more serious death blow would be if von der Leyen is appointed to her second term as Commission President without the process.


In the 2024 election, the Spitzenkandidaten process must take place from start to finish, otherwise, its defeat is definitive and irreversible.


The next EP election after 2024 is in 2029, and that would be fifteen years since the Spitzenkandidaten would have been used. If ten years in politics is a century, fifteen years is almost an eternity, and nothing lasts in eternity.



Sources: Euractiv, European Parliament, Politico, Treaty on European Union


Written by Ville Rajala

November 2023


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MJPE or its Board. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MJPE concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.






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