The death of the Spitzenkandidaten

The European Council killed the “Spitzenkandidaten” process. It was never great, but a return to the old appointment system will have consequences of its own.

A useless circus

The treaties of the European Union as they stand at the moment indicate that the results of the European elections need to be taken into account for the nomination of the president of the European Commission. In 2014, the different political party political factions nominated a candidate to represent them in this process: participating in roundtables and TV debates, having their faces splashed on magazine covers, and producing YouTube ads disseminating their political message. Back then, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) did not nominate a candidate because they opposed the system in of itself. The far-left group GUE-NGL nominated the current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who indicated during TV debates that it was not his intention to become Commission president.

The European People’s Party (EPP) came out on top in this process and Jean-Claude Juncker was the evident choice for President. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron tried to lead a coalition in the European Council to oppose Juncker’s nomination, but lost the battle. Despite having mixed feelings about the Luxembourger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ultimately approved the nomination.

This time around, French president Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini opposed the process prior to the European elections. It went on regardless with Manfred Weber (EPP), Frans Timmermans (PES), Jan Zahradil (ACRE), Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout (EGP), Violeta Tomič and Nico Cue (EL), Oriol Junqueras (EFA), and ALDE, which presented a list of candidates including former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Danish Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

The EPP once again received the most seats in the European Parliament, making Manfred Weber the favourite for the post of Commission President. However, the European Council disregarded the Spitzenkandidaten process this time around and nominated German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen. This rendered the entire Spitzenkandidaten run-up during the European election completely pointless. 

What now?

All the citizens who had been sold on the Spitzenkandidaten system can rightfully feel misled. The entire process was a circus that was intended to give the illusion of democratic choice in the European election. With the nomination of Von der Leyen, we’re back to the reality of José Manuel Barroso: backroom deals and invisible trade-offs that not even the Brussels journalist bubble can understand. This is particularly problematic because the president of the European Commission isn’t just any job: the European Commission is the only EU institution that can initiate legislation and is therefore pivotal in the creation of EU rules. It is far more influential than the European Parliament.

The Spitzenkandidaten system was an attempt to imitate the nomination of the German Chancellor but failed to generate any interest. It tried to give a bit more legitimacy to the one person in the Union who wields a great deal of legislative and executive power. It failed. The lack of tenability of the Spitzenkandidaten, however, doesn’t lend credibility to the current system, either.

Provided the power relationship between the institutions remains as it is, the nomination process will engender further frustration with the operation of the European Union.


This article was first published by Values4Europe.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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