By Rhys Thomas
European Union politics is complex at the best of times, and the Spitzenkandidaten is no different. It is the process by which the President of the European Commission is chosen, but is not formally enshrined in any EU treaty. It was first used in 2014 in an effort to democratise the process of selecting the Commission President. This is done by linking the selection of a new Commission President to EU Parliament elections, giving the Presidential gig to a representative of the party grouping with the most seats. The two largest groupings are the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats which the British Labour Party are members of.
The original change came with the the Treaty of Lisbon, (which came into effect December 2009) changing the official wording regarding the Commission President, which stated that the European Council should take “into account the elections to the European Parliament” and then “propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission”. This isn’t legally binding, but was enough for the Parliament and the groups within it to start preparing.
The idea behind Spitzenkandidaten was to give EU Parliamentary elections a higher profile and to democratise the bloc. General dissatisfaction with the EU led to low voter turnout in EU elections (only 43.24% voted across the 28 nations in 2009), with ‘fringe’ parties of left and right such as Syriza in Greece and the Front National in France benefitting. In 2014, Presidential debates were held and candidates travelled across the EU to campaign for parties within their pan-EU grouping, and there were even campaign battle buses. Despite this turnout actually dipped, albeit marginally.
There has been much debate over the state of European democracy. Current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is staunchly in favour of the Spitzenkandidaten process and restated his support this year – not surprising considering he enjoys his current position because of it. French President Emmanuel Macron opposes it, arguing that it gives too much influence to little-known yet powerful EU-wide groupings which trump the power of elected national governments within the European Council (which had traditionally selected the Commission President). He has instead urged the EU to democratise by endorsing transnational lists, with voters across the bloc being able to vote for these candidates and not just vote for their own national MEPs, but this measure was recently rejected by the European Parliament. For his part, Juncker wants to merge the posts of Commission and Council Presidents to create a more recognisable and powerful figure to head the EU.
The Spitzenkandidaten is safe for now, but how it develops in future will be a good indicator of the direction in which the EU is heading, and who calls the shots in Brussels.