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Red Herring & Black Swan: Don’t Count Your Spitzens Before They Hatch


In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker became commission president because the European Parliament pushed him as Spitzenkandidat. But that flawed system may not survive the 2019 European elections.

In May 2014, the European Parliament in Brussels was the scene of some must-see TV. The European Broadcasting Union, mostly known for organizing the Eurovision song contest, held a televised debate between the five people running to be the next European Commission president.

The parliament’s plenary chamber was turned into a dramatic TV set, complete with changing lighting and suspenseful music. The Brussels bubble was enthralled. But even though the debate aired on TV stations across Europe, the ratings were dismal. This led people to ask the fabled “tree in the forest” question—if a presidential election takes place, but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

The truth is that even among the EU politics wonks in the audience, there was skepticism about whether one of these people would actually become the next EU Commission president. That’s because the parliament’s political groups were essentially holding this contest without getting permission from the EU’s national leaders, who are the ones who appoint the head of the commission.

But in the end, one of those people did end up becoming president: Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of Angela Merkel’s center-right European People’s Party (EPP). This improbable outcome was the result of shrewd political manipulation by Juncker’s right-hand man, some might say puppet master, Martin Selmayr.

Five years on, here we go again. The contest is shaping up, and the parliament has sworn it will not confirm any candidate who was not put forward by one of the European parties. But many are skeptical that one of these so-called Spitzenkandidaten (“lead candidate”) will once again become president. Even though they were proved wrong last time, this time around the nay-sayers have more cause for their incredulity.

Spitzenkandidat’s Birth

The whole exercise has less to do with European democracy than it does with EU institutional power games.

The idea was first devised 15 years ago, by the people drafting the European Constitution. That charter eventually became the Lisbon Treaty, passed in 2009, and a nebulous phrase regarding the selection of Commission president survived: the 28 national leaders of the EU will select the Commission president by “taking into account” the result of the European elections.

The European Parliament insists this means that the leaders must select the candidate of the political group that won the most seats in the election, or the one that can get a majority vote in the parliament. Last time around, it was the EPP that received the most votes and so, under a procedure similar to national parliamentary democracies, its candidate, Juncker, got first crack at trying to form a majority. That he did, by getting the votes of MEPs from the other two main parties, the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

The national EU leaders didn’t accept the legitimacy of what became known as the spitzenkandidat system, from the German word for top or lead candidate. But they never did anything early on to stop the process from going ahead, much to the annoyance of then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, who warned the leaders the process was going to become an unstoppable freight train unless they clearly rejected it early in 2014.

Cameron was right. By the time the election was over, Selmayr was able to convince his friends in the German media to launch a full-scale pressure campaign on Merkel to accept Juncker as the democratically-elected president of Europe. Never mind the fact that most voters had no idea the contest was even happening, and even political elites had laughed it off as a bizarre experiment. Merkel felt the pressure, and in turn strong-armed other EU leaders to accept the result. Only Cameron and Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán voted against confirming Juncker.

In February 2018, the EU’s national leaders again said they do not recognize the legitimacy of the spitzenkandidat system. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, always good for a cryptic tweet, warned “don’t count your spitzens before they’re hatched”.

Lackluster Candidates

The parties have again chosen their candidates now. In 2014 they included two former prime ministers (Luxembourg’s Juncker and Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberals), one current prime minister (Greece’s Alexis Tsipras for far-left GUE), and a parliament president (Martin Schulz for the PES, who later went on to lead the SPD’s failed election campaign to be chancellor of Germany).

This time is quite different. The EPP was the only party to hold a primary campaign to select its nominee, and in what many considered a “backroom deal,” they rejected the dynamic former Finnish Prime minister Alex Stubb in favour of the mild-mannered EPP group leader Manfred Weber, largely unknown outside the Brussels bubble (and not very known within it either).

PES failed to hold a primary contest and anointed the only man interested in the job, the current Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who is relatively well-known on the European stage for taking on Hungary and Poland for their rule of law violations.

The Liberal ALDE group has so far refused to put forward any candidate at all. That’s because French President Emmanuel Macron has come out strongly against the spitzenkandidat system, and the Liberals are hoping to woo him into placing his En Marche party within their group. They are waiting to see what the lay of the land is in February before deciding whether to put forward a candidate.

The euroskeptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, formed by Cameron in 2009 by uniting his Conservatives with the strongly nationalist Polish PiS party, refused to participate in the process in 2014 because they viewed it as a further attempt at forming an EU super-state. But with the Brits on the way out and the future of the group unclear, the Poles have chosen to put forward Czech MEP Jan Zahradil as the ECR’s candidate. The Greens have put forward two candidates, Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout and German MEP Ska Keller. GUE, the far-left political group that put forward Tsipras last time, has not yet decided whether to participate.

Watch Out for Barnier

Out of all the candidates, the only one with significant political stature is Timmermans, a prominent politician in the Netherlands who has some clout on the Europeans stage. But given the social democrats’ waning political fortunes, it is doubtful that a PES candidate could become Commission president. Right now it looks like the PES could come third or even fourth in May’s election. Given that there are currently only three center-left governments in Europe (in Spain, Portugal, and Slovakia, with Sweden’s government set to fall any moment), it would be bizarre for the EU Commission president to be from the center-left.

Indeed, the betting money in Brussels right now is on a man who is not one of the candidates—the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. He is center-right but was unable to enter the EPP nomination contest because his current job is not yet over. But don’t be surprised if he is put forward by EU leaders following the European election, if they choose to disregard the spitzenkandidat process. The big question will then be whether the European Parliament will carry through on its threat to reject any president who was not a candidate.

The underwhelming nature of the candidates so far could mean that ALDE has everything to play for when the liberals make their decision on a candidate in February. And much will depend on Macron’s political fortunes.

When he first came out against the process in early 2018, Macron’s voice carried some weight. His En Marche party, having just won a majority in the French parliament, was expected to win many seats in the European Parliament, too. But now, with the yellow vest movements having damaged his political power both domestically and internationally, Macron may not have the political capital to spend on a bareknuckle fight against the winning spitzenkandidat.

A Damp Squib in 2019

Macron’s big issue with the system is that he views it as an EPP-stitch up. The center-right was certain to win the largest number of seats in 2014, and the center-right designers of the system knew that. They are also almost certain to win the most seats this time, although by a less crushing margin than in 2014.

Macron has proposed that the European elections be fought on ideological grounds, with the centrist pro-EU parties rallying around a single platform against the anti-EU populists—to give European voters a clear choice. It is still possible that the ALDE candidate could emerge as such a de-facto pro-EU candidate, either before or after the election. One name that has been bandied about as someone who could deliver that message convincingly and engagingly to the public is Margrethe Vestager, the Danish EU Commissioner for competition.

Because it is not enshrined in law, the spitzenkandidat process is only as strong as the political groups make it. On the current path, the process is very likely to be a damp squib in 2019. Without Selmayr’s aggressive support, the second time around could also be the last for this democratic experiment.

That is, unless ALDE delivers a surprise in February.