We are delighted to introduce #EuraffexSpotlight, a weekly contribution covering Europe, Brussels and the World. Subscribe for interesting exclusive content that will make you learn more about the world we live in. Our first #EuraffexSpotlight is on the use of the word "Spitzenkandidat".
BYE, BYE SPITZENKANDIDAT?
With elections of a new European Parliament, new European Commission and a new President of the European Council approaching, use of the German word Spitzenkandidat is on the rise. Certainly, in Brussels. Despite its frequent use and belief of immanent commencement, the Spitzenkandidat process is neither as inevitable as it might seem, nor is it necessarily the best way to do things.
The Spitzenkandidaten process was launched five years ago, which means it has only ever been implemented once. It was presented as an attempt to increase the democratic process in the European institutions and attract voters’ attention to the European elections. It was also seen by some as a way for the Parliament to weigh in on the choice and show how important it really is. In theory this potentially seems like a positive endeavour that one and all could support, however, it would be prudent to consider if it is not actually just a system created by Brussels, for Brussels, which only people ‘in the know’ understand and would have an interest in. If one of the approved KPI’s for success was to identify a notable increase in the interest in the European Elections, it failed. This begs the question of, why would we think it would work better this time? And if it is going to be used again, have the appropriate changes been made to ensure that it is more resonant with its audiences and delivers against its KPI’s?
Just like in 2014, the first – and only – time it was used, the candidates were predominantly known in the countries where they come from, with other Europeans being ignorantly unaware of them. This was a significant contributing factor to why the process did not generate interest with the citizens of other European countries. The branding was so localised, and targeted to domestic audience. This galvanised local resonance and campaigning, at the jeopardy of broader recognition.
While the embarrassingly low level of traction among the broader EU citizen base could in itself be enough to put the Spitzenkandidat system into early retirement, it is not the only reason to do so. Rather more worrying is that the logic of the entire system is flawed.
It is true that some European parties prefer the simplicity of the idea of linking the appointment of the next Commission President to the European elections. They thrive on the idea of letting whichever political group becomes the largest in the next EP, automatically decide who gets to be Commission President.
This sort of rudimentary logic is baffling. Becoming ever so slightly larger than your closest opponent is in no way a guarantee that you have the backing of the majority of voters. Especially not in a European Parliament with seven, eight or nine different political groupings.
If we persist with this method, imagine what might happen if the combination of the Far-Right, the populist and the euro-sceptics reaches more votes than the EPP (not an entirely absurd scenario) and they manage to create the largest group in the EP, even if only for a short while. Would that mean they should then pick the Commission President, even with up to 75% of MEPs being in opposition to them? It is not likely that this scenario would be acceptable to either member states or the European Parliament. We simply cannot have a system that is only in place if ‘the right’ politicians are successful. What is the alternative? There are in fact several options that each have something unqiue to offer. One option is to revert to the ‘old rule’. This means that the Commission President is selected by the leaders of the EU member states. For the past 25 years this has meant picking one of their own for the post. However, one might question if being a former member of the Council ‘club’ should be the prime pre-requisite for being an effective Commission President? I do not think so. Nor is it a model that has delivered much in term of diversity, be it gender or ethnicity.
Option number two is more radical, but also more democratic in nature; we could have a direct election of the President of the Commission, held on the same day as the European Elections. This way it would be clear to all that they can vote for the Commission President and that it would be free of last-minute backroom deals.
A third option is to go firm on parliamentary governance and let whichever candidate manages to get the backing of more than half of the European Parliament become the Commission President.
The fourth option is that each member state lets their voters elect their own Commissioner, together with their MEPs. The Commissioners could then vote among themselves on whom of them should become President. That way, voters would not only have a direct say in whom sits in the Commission, it would also no longer be possible to talk about the Commissioners as un-elected bureaucrats due to the fact that they would now have a democratic mandate. If this model was chosen, parties in each member state would have to put up some of their strongest and most well-known politicians in order to win the Commissionership of their country. This is not a bad thing.
While it is difficult to fully predict the outcome of May’s European elections, it is not difficult to predict that the Spitzenkandidaten process might be nearing its end. What this means is that we should look for an appropriate replacement that is fit for purpose for the future.