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Spitzenkandidaten: A success story ! ?
Research Fellow, Mannheimer Zentrum für Europäische Sozialforschung
Spitzenkandidaten were a novelty in the 2014 EP election. Based on the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, a number of EU-wide party federations nominated leading candidates in the intention to strengthen their campaign and improve their electoral result.
There was an additional incentive for the two main EU-wide party federations, the EPP and the Socialists. Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, their respective candidates, campaigned not only to improve the electoral performance of their party alliance, but also – if electorally successful – in order to be nominated by the Council and elected by the Parliament as the next president of the European Commission.
The stronger link between the outcome of the EP election and the formation of the next Commission was successfully established
This all was meant to strengthen the link between the election of members of the European Parliament and the formation of a new Commission — the executive power of of the EU, among other things. The main result of that “test race” was, as we know today, that the party group which came out strongest in the election, the EPP, nominated its Spitzenkandidat Jean Claude Juncker who became president of the Commission.
So the stronger link between the outcome of the EP election and the formation of the next Commission was successfully established, as intended by the signatories of the Lisbon treaty. Did the invention of Spitzenkandidaten also mobilise the EU citizens to participate in the EP election, as was intended by both the Parliament and the Commission? Based on the results of the European Election Study 2014, the answer is yes and no. On one hand, those citizens who recognised one or more of the Spitzenkandidaten were more likely to participate in the election. The campaigning of Spitenkandidaten seems to have contributed to the mobilisation of their fellow partisans in the member countries. On the other hand, not very many actually recognised them. So the effect was positive, but very tiny. This could of course improve in future electoral races, as the one shortly ahead of us, as the actors involved may learn from the previous experiences.
The campaigning seems to have contributed to the mobilisation of their fellow partisans
One final word of caution is in order here. Linking the result of an EP election to the nomination of the next president of the Commission does not party-democratise the relation between Parliament and Commission altogether. Rather, the other legislator of the Union — the European Council — still exercises its right to nominate Commissioners, one by each member-country. So that the next Commission president will not enjoy the privilege to select their ministers, as national heads of government do, they will rather be served on the European Council tablet (however scrutinized by the European Parliament).
The Spitzenkandidaten system only floats in the Brussels bubble
The procedure to appoint the president of the European Commission was turned on its head in 2014. No more backroom dealing among European leaders – European voters could determine, albeit indirectly – the head of the EU’s executive from among candidates pre-selected by the European Parliament’s political groups.
The hope was that this would raise citizens’ awareness of European elections and draw more of them to the ballot box, counteracting the downward slide in voter turnout at EP elections. But turnout hit an all-time low of 42.61 per cent in 2014. Research has shown that EU citizens were largely unaware of a) the fact that their vote translated indirectly into the office of Commission president and b) the individual candidates standing for election.
It is largely a debate among political elites
The main problem with the Spitzenkandidaten system is this disconnect between the EU and its citizens. Discussion about the system does not take place at the level intended: it is largely a debate among political elites. The ambition was for more democracy but in fact most citizens have never even heard of the term Spitzenkandidaten.
After the unsuccessful debut of the Spitzenkandidaten system in 2014, many reform ideas were discussed and it was thought that the idea might have been dogged by teething troubles. The key line was that in 2019 the candidates should be selected earlier to ensure a longer, better campaign and to familiarise voters with the process and with the candidates. This has not happened, however. Most of the political families appointed their candidates even later than last time round and the campaigns do not seem to have reached more people than in 2014.
The Heads of State and Government would rather keep the prerogative of appointing the Commission president to themselves
National governments and national parties have a crucial role to play as facilitators – to generate serious outreach to citizens. This comes back to another systemic Spitzenkandidaten problem: the Heads of State and Government would rather keep the prerogative of appointing the Commission president to themselves and are therefore no great fans of the system. And the core interest of the national parties is to win as many votes/seats and thereby political influence possible, which they are more likely achieve with national politicians campaigning on national rather than European issues.
This results in little incentive for either governments or national parties to promote the Spitzenkandidaten procedure towards their citizens.
The Spitzenkandidaten system, as with all institutional reform ideas, is not an end in itself. It does not provide added value as such; it must deliver concrete results. Only with sufficient public outreach can this procedure boost democratic legitimacy.