“Don’t count your spitzens before they hatch,” tweeted Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė ominously as she entered Friday’s summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
The Lithuanian president was referring to the so-called ‘spitzenkandidaten’ process, used in the last European Parliament elections in 2014 for the first time to select the European Commission President as a result of the public vote. National leaders of the 27 future EU member states (that is, all except the UK) were meeting Friday to decide whether to use the process again in next year’s election.
French President Emmanuel Macron was dead set against the idea, and he urged his fellow national leaders to reject it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was for it. In the end, Macron won the day.
Familiar form of democracy
The process somewhat mirrors a parliamentary democracy. In 2014 each pan-European party nominated a lead candidate, with the agreement that the candidate from the party that won the most seats in the European Parliament would become Commission President.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, became president because he was the nominee of the centre-right European Peoples Party, which has had a lock on power in Europe for many years.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution saying the process should be repeated, and that the candidate from the party winning the most seats should “automatically” become the Commission President. This is contrary to the EU treaties, under which the national leaders nominate the Commission President by a vote, and that nomination then has to be approved by the Parliament. The Parliament’s resolution says they will not approve any nominee who was not a spitzenkandidat.
It has also been posited that the current system of having two EU presidents – one for the European Council of the 28 national leaders, and one for the European Commission (the EU executive) – should be ended and these posts should be merged into one to avoid power struggles.
On Friday national leaders rejected both ideas.
Though its proponents have tried to make torturous comparisons to US presidential elections, the Spitzenkandidaten process more closely resembles the parliamentary systems Europeans are more familiar with. Citizens cast their vote for a party, and the leader of the party that gets the most votes usually (but not always) becomes prime minister.
Of course the difference here is that the European Commission, the EU executive, is a separate institution from the Parliament. So the process is perhaps most comparable to the system in Italy or Spain, where the leader of the party with the most seats in the parliament becomes the “President of the Council” – a cabinet that is in some ways a separate executive institution.
Institutional power fight
Macron’s objections to the process are two-fold. First, he points out that under the EU treaties, the right to choose the president is shared between the Parliament and the European Council – the body made up of the 28 national EU leaders. The Parliament’s proposal would reduce the Council to merely a rubber stamp.
On this he is supported by Council President Donald Tusk, who noted after yesterday’s summit, “The treaty says that the president of the European Commission should be proposed by the democratically elected leaders of their member states, and that he or she should be elected by the democratically elected members of the European Parliament…Cutting away any of the two sources of legitimacy would make it less democratic, not more."
Macron also points out that because of the political dynamics in Europe, the system would guarantee that the president comes from either the centre-right EPP bloc or the centre-left Socialists and Democrats bloc, who together make up 55 percent of the Parliament. Given the current political dynamics in Europe, the winner in 2019 would almost certainly be the nominee of the EPP. Given that the independent Macron won last year’s French presidential election by railing against these two political groups, he is understandably opposed to this lock on power.
Macron has proposed that instead, the next elections should draw up “transnational” lists of MEP candidates that everyone in Europe could vote for. People would thus be forced to think about European rather than national issues when voting for their transnational representative. Each of these lists, which would not have to be tied to any specific party affiliation, would select a lead candidate, and that person would become president.
But Macron’s proposal for transnational lists was rejected by the European Parliament earlier this month. Though the centre-left S&D MEPs voted for it, EPP MEPs voted against it. This, combined with the votes of the far-right and Eurosceptic MEPs, killed Macron’s dream.
In a defiant press conference following Friday’s summit, Macron blamed the European Parliament for the process’s rejection by EU leaders. “The Parliament has missed an opportunity in this respect,” he said. He could not support a spitzenkandidaten without transnational lists.
Macron says it is the European Parliament’s fault that an automatic #Spitzenkandidaten process was rejected by national leaders today, because MEPs rejected transnational lists for the next election #EUCO pic.twitter.com/t0UPWO3799— Dave Keating (@DaveKeating) February 23, 2018
However he acknowledged that the current system isn’t very good either. The nomination of Commission President has in the past been the result of backroom deals between national leaders, who usually select a president who is the least threatening to their national interests – hence the eight years of Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Juncker’s predecessor, who did little to challenge national power or advance the European project. National leaders select the president in a one-night negotiating session, with zero public debate. They come out of their smoke-filled room and say, ‘here he is, like it or lump it’. He (and it has always been a he) has always been from one of the two centrist parties.
The leaders defend the democratic merits of the system by pointing out that they themselves were democratically elected, and the nomination has to be approved by the directly-elected European Parliament. But the Parliament has never rejected a Commission President, although they have in the past rejected commissioners.
Spitzenkandidaten not dead
However, the real truth is this is the exact same situation we were in four years ago. And it is still highly likely that the process will unfold the same way – because of pressure from the Parliament and Germany.
That a German word is used to describe the process betrays its origins. It was the brainchild of Martin Selmayr, the powerful German chief of cabinet for Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
As chief of staff for former EU Justice and Citizenship Commissioner Vivian Reding from Luxembourg in 2013, he had his boss put forward the spitzenkandidaten proposal, with an eye to having her run as the EPP’s nominee.
However when she proved herself an unsuitable candidate (she picked too many fights with national governments as justice minister), he dumped her and chose a new horse – Reding’s compatriot Juncker. The EPP conducted a primary-of-sorts at their party congress in 2014 to choose their nominee, in which Juncker competed against Michel Barnier, now the EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit. In a result largely attributed to Selmayr’s machinations, Juncker won. In reality, Juncker’s victory was always assured.
Selmayr also found an ally for the process in the German Martin Schulz, at that time the President of the European Parliament. Schulz, who later went on to lose a national German election spectacularly, had for years dreamed of becoming Commission president, and he secured the S&D’s nomination without any challenge. The left flank of the party complained they had been excluded from the process.
The Liberals chose Belgian firebrand Guy Verhofstadt as their candidate, and the Greens German Ska Keller and Frenchman José Bové. The Leftists chose Greek PM Alexis Tsipras. The European Conservatives and Reformists, the group consisting of British Conservatives and hard-right parties from Eastern Europe such as Poland’s Law and Justice, refused to participate in the process.
Several TV debates were held which were broadcast across Europe. But outside of Germany, the race received little media attention.
Germans, however, took a keen interest in the process. Selmayr, who has close connections to the German media world, ensured extensive coverage.
EU national leaders were opposed to the process and did nothing to facilitate it. They insisted that they would not be bound by the election result. But they also did nothing to stop it. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was seemingly the only one who saw the writing on the wall, and he warned his counterparts they were “sleepwalking toward a disaster”.
Sure enough, after the election Merkel faced immense pressure from the German media to “honour the will of the people” and appoint Juncker as president. After much fuming, the national leaders were eventually forced to hold their nose and vote for Juncker – all except Cameron and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who abstained.
Flash forward four years and we are in the exact same place. National leaders said on Friday there will be no “automatic” appointment of the spitzenkandidaten winner. But at the same time, they can’t stop the political groups from fielding lead candidates and conducting debates. Merkel hasn’t instructed the EPP to not field a candidate. And so the process will go ahead. Come June 2019, the pressure to honor the result will again be there.
Last week, in a seeming act of gratitude to the man who installed him in power, Jean-Claude Juncker appointed Martin Selmayr to become Secretary-General of the European Commission. It is the executive’s post powerful civil servant post, and will maintain Selmayr’s power even after Juncker leaves office next year.
Selmayr continues to be a strong proponent of the spitzenkandidaten system and will no doubt resume his campaign of political pressure for the result to be honoured next year.
It is not an ideal situation. The confusion over the process’s legitimacy in 2014 meant that high-profile politicians did not want to take part, and the media viewed it as a Brussels bubble sideshow. As Juncker (who is, unsurprisingly, a fan of the process) noted after Friday’s summit, “I know that Europeans aren't too keen on institutional issues – in fact they couldn't really be bothered by them…but these things play a major role.”
Had national leaders given their backing on Friday, it would have given the process the legitimacy it needs to be taken seriously in 2019, both by politicians and the public. Without their stamp of approval, we are likely to see a similar campaign to the one we saw four years ago - a contest between a group of political pygmies, one of which will end up becoming Commission President.
Macron’s criticisms are perfectly valid – the process is far from perfect, and a system using transnational lists would have undoubtedly been better. But by throwing the baby out with the bath water, he and the other national leaders have pulled the rug out from under what could have been a democratically legitimate process.
When it comes to EU democracy, Macron has let the perfect be the enemy of the good.