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The Kiss of Death for the Spitzenkandidat System?


By fielding a seven-person team of EU election candidates, Europe’s Liberals have simultaneously disrupted the Spitzenkandidat system for choosing the next Commission president and heightened the chances of a Liberal getting the EU’s top job.

© REUTERS/Yves Herman

Last week, on the margins of a European Council summit driven to distraction by Brexit, Europe’s Liberals dealt what could be the decisive blow to the young Spitzenkandidat system for choosing European Commission presidents.

As a result, the next two months of debate between the presidential candidates ahead of the EU election on 23-26 May could all be for nothing.

The system was used for the first time during the last European election in 2014, after years of debate about how to address the “democratic deficit” in selecting people for the EU’s top posts. The idea is that each European political family nominates a Spitzenkandidat (“lead candidate” in German) to become the European Commission president. The candidate of whichever party obtains the majority vote in the European Parliament election­­—or can command a majority in the European Parliament—becomes president.

The system was pushed by both the commission and parliament but was opposed by the council of 28 national leaders, who said the choice of commission president is theirs alone. The EU treaties simply state that the decision should be made “taking into account the result of the European Parliament election.”

While it’s clear that the council appoints the commission president, he or she must be approved by the parliament. And the parliament refused to approve anyone who wasn’t a Spitzenkandidat. So in the end, the national governments bowed to pressure and appointed Jean-Claude Juncker, the Spitzenkandidat of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) which had attracted the most votes in the election.

The system was enthusiastically embraced in 2014 by Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt. But this year he’s done an about-face. That’s because it is strongly opposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. The Liberals are trying to woo Macron into taking his En Marche party into their ALDE political family.

Macron has come out early and fiercely against the system, which he says is an EPP stitch-up because Europe’s largest political family is always guaranteed to get the most votes. He says the system is a way to guarantee the appointment of this year’s EPP nominee Manfred Weber, a man nobody is particularly enthusiastic about.

The “Seven Dwarves”

Until last week, the Liberals had refused to even participate by fielding a candidate. But in the end, they decided to hedge their bets. We’ll participate, they said, but we’ll do it our way.

Last Thursday, at the pre-summit of Europe’s eight Liberal prime ministers in Brussels, they unveiled a “Team Europe”—five women and two men—as their candidates for all the EU’s top jobs. That is, commission president, council president, parliament president, and High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

The other parties have reacted furiously, with many accusing the Liberals of cheating the system.

The European Parliament, digging in its heels in the face of Macron’s opposition, has said it will not nominate any commission president who was not one of the Spitzenkandidaten ahead of the election. This means that while the other groups have just one person as a possibility (or two in the case of the Greens and far-left GUE), ALDE will have seven. One could say their chances of getting a Liberal commission president just increased seven-fold.

“It’s a dirty trick,” one EPP member grumbled privately.

However, the effectiveness of this trick is diluted by the stature of the candidates, who have been mocked in Brussels as “the seven dwarves.” The only two people on the list with a high profile in Europe are EU Competition Commissioner Magrethe Vestager and Guy Verhofstadt.

The other five are the former European commissioner from Italy, Emma Bonino (much beloved in Italy but unknown outside), Nicola Beer of Germany’s Free Democrats, Spanish politician Luis Garicano from the upstart party Ciudadanos, EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc from Slovenia, and Hungarian politician Katalin Cseh from the small Momentum party.

Vestager’s Quiet Candidacy

Verhofstadt was seriously in the running to become EU Commission President in 2004, but he was vetoed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair who saw him as too federalist. Feelings about Verhofstadt among national leaders has only become more negative since then, with many seeing him as a showboating politician with impractical solutions.

Even if Verhofstadt were to attract a majority vote in the European Parliament to become commission president, it’s difficult to see national leaders accepting this. EU national governments have always been reluctant to appoint any commission president who they think would be adversarial toward them and try to dilute national power (many see the council’s appointment of Jacques Delors in 1985 as the biggest mistake made by the council in this institutional power struggle).

Vestager, however, is a different story. She has won plaudits for her tenure as competition commissioner over the past five years—not just for the boldness of her decisions but also for her clear and direct style of communication. Many, including The Economist magazine, think she is exactly the woman the EU needs at the helm in this difficult time. She does not call herself a federalist, but rather a realist.

Vestager has been careful not to be seen as campaigning for the job, and even during last week’s launch she was studiously understated. She only joined the ticket in order to “inspire people to take part” and to “engage in the debate,” she told reporters. When pressed about whether she wants to be commission president, she said: “First things first. We need to know what is the task … before we start handing out CVs and job applications.”

If she were to stick her neck out further, people might start sharpening the knives in Paris and Berlin. Her recent decision to block a proposed merger between Germany’s Siemens and France’s Alstom prompted a furious reaction from the two countries, and some have speculated the decision has doomed her chances of becoming president because either country would veto it.

On the other hand, her courage in taking the decision could increase her stock with the EU’s 26 (or 25, should Brexit happen) other countries, eager for a president who is not afraid to take on the Franco-German behemoth.

Vestager herself has in the past insisted that her biggest obstacle to becoming president is her native Denmark. The current government, projected to still be in power by the end of the year, is a political foe and unlikely to propose her as their commissioner for the next term. That being said, it is unlikely a small country like Denmark would turn down the opportunity to have a Dane as president, no matter her politics.

Spitzencan, or Spitzencan’t?

Were Vestager to become the next president, it would hardly be a victory for proponents of the Spitzenkandidat system. The Liberals have essentially disrupted it by fielding “Team Europe” and Vestager is merely hedging her bets by participating.

The fact that the system does not enjoy the support of Europe’s third-largest political family, led by one of the most pro-European federalist politicians in the form of Verhofstadt means its credibility has been severely damaged. The parliament may be insisting it will not appoint anyone who was not a candidate, but in Brussels people are openly talking about other names for the post, including chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. If someone interjects by saying, “But he’s not a Spitzenkandidat!,” they are greeted with laughter.

It could be that Weber or Frans Timmermans, the Socialists & Democrats’ candidate, become president and the system is vindicated. But this seem increasingly unlikely. Should anyone other than these two men become president, including any of the Liberal seven, the Spitzenkandidat system will probably be consigned to the dustbin of history.