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Is the Spitzenkandidaten system dead?

2014. There are two candidates who compete for the presidency of the European Commission. Jean-Claude Juncker is the candidate of the European People’s Party. Martin Schulz is the candidate of the Party of European Socialists. Other Spitzenkandidaten include the Greens’ and the Liberals’ candidates (Ska Keller and José Bové, Guy Verhofstadt) as well as the far-left (Alexis Tsipras). There are debates organised and hosted by the Euronews and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), there are duels between Juncker and Schulz on German-speaking channels ARD, ZDF and ORF, there are debates in France and in Italy. The leading candidate of the winning camp becomes president of the European Commission. He promises a political Commission.

A pan-European public space is born. Or not. In 2019 a new situation arises. There are four political forces with a potential to build a political group in the European Parliament after elections with 100-200 MEPs in each group. The EPP is expected to go down; current expectations are that in a smaller Parliament EPP will have fewer than 200 MEPs. Social-Democrats are expected to massively decrease their presence to under 150 MEPs. At the same time the Liberal group, if merged with president Macron’s new movement in France, could amount to over 100 MEPs. And a new group that could emerge from the current political groups of ECR, EFDD and ENF could also produce a block of 100+ MEPs. In 2019 the Europhiles should expect 4 Spitzenkandidaten with real-life confrontation of programmes and ideas for the future of Europe. EPP and PES have nominated their candidates for the presidency of the European Commission. Manfred Weber of EPP and Frans Timmermans of PES are competing for the job Jean-Claude Juncker is retiring from.

Meanwhile ALDE has decided to nominate a number of leading candidates. In case ALDE wins the European elections its leaders, its Spitzens would not become a collective president of the European Commission. ALDE is merely recognising their version of reality: in 2019 the Spitzenkandidaten of any European party will not necessarily become Commission’s president. Their Spitzens serve the purpose of a pan-European campaign ahead of the elections. What will happen after 26 May is left for later decisions.

This change of heart of the liberal camp is related to the criticism the Spitzenkandidaten process receives from the president Macron’s En Marche in France. In fact, latest news from Paris suggest France has another EPP candidate for the head of the next Commission: Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator and a former Commissioner.

The Greens are unmoved by the liberal crackdown on the process: again there are two Green Spitzenkandidaten: the female Ska Keller repeats her 2014 quest, and the male Bas Eickhout enjoys his first time as a Spitzenkandidat. The European Left also has nominated a duo: Violeta Tomic and Nico Cue.

Jan Zahradil

ECR’s in!

If the Greens and European Left can’t dream about winning the elections, the ECR can. European Conservatives and Reformists are orphans post-Brexit. As the British MEPs depart the European Parliament, ECR’s largest block leaves the group and its parent party, the ACRE, considerably weakened.

In 2014 there was no ECR Spitzenkandidat. In 2019 there is one. The 2019 ECR Spitzenkandidat is Czech MEP Jan Zahradil.

Brexit has a major impact on the groups to the right of the EPP. ECR loses Tories, EFDD loses UKIP. The orphaned members need to talk to each other to reinforce each other chances, recognising also the new political reality in Italy, where a government is formed by EFDD and ENF members. What will come out of this conversation? If majority of parties of current ECR, EFDD and ENF got together…

Paris, 28 February 2019. Jan Zahradil presents a new coalition “for a Europe of Nations”. This coalition is composed of Euro-realist national political forces. With him in Paris are new Dutch partners of Forum of Democracy (FvD) under the leadership of Thierry Baudet. Forum is polling at 9%. Next to the Dutchman are the Poles and the Law and Justice leader in the EP, Ryszard Legutko. The French host is Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of Debout la France (DLF). DLF is polling at 6%.

Zahradil is ambitious: “The grand coalition between the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, which has ruled Brussels for years, must end”. According to the latest polls, indeed the EPP and S&D are expected to score under 50% of seats in the European Parliament for the first time since 1979. Zahradil is certain the future group he represents will be the moderate voice between the “EU fanatics” and radical anti-Europeans. After the elections “we will bring out the change needed in Brussels”, he says. So far the group is competing in 24 member states.

Problems start at home

The problems start with unclear message of what is Mr Zahradil campaigning for. In Paris it is clear he is after the Commission’s top job the same way Jean-Claude Juncker was in 2014.

In Prague the Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš joins the critical voices of the Spitzenkandidaten process. In January Babiš as quoted in info.cz: “I personally do not like the system of Spitzenkandidaten. The President of the Commission should be the best of all nominated European Commissioners and it is not just a political matter”.

Another “home” for Jan Zahradil is the ECR. Recently a leading Polish ECR MEP told me off the record that Zahradil is not a candidate for the position of the Commission president. Mr Zahradil is ECR lead candidate in the electoral process. PiS looks at the process the same way as the Liberals.

It is also not helpful that the European Council has been preparing for the election of the next Commission president. A year ago, in February 2018, a title of a Politico article says it all: EU leaders: We won’t be bound by Spitzenkandidat process. One of the leading voices within the European Council belongs to Angela Merkel: “There will be no unambiguous majority in the next parliament… it is unsure it will be the candidate of the strongest party. We have to wait for the majority of parliament”.

Donald Tusk will oversee the process. He is equally sceptical. In 2018 he says: “The idea that the Spitzenkandidaten process is somehow more democratic is wrong. The treaty says that the president of European Commission should be proposed by the democratically elected leaders of the member states. And that he or she should be elected by the democratically elected members of the European Parliament. This is the double democratic legitimacy of the Commission president. Cutting away any of the two sources of legitimacy would make it less democratic, not more”.

Still, as Tusk says, “of course, being a Spitzenkandidat does not preclude you from becoming the future president of the European Commission. I am absolutely sure it might even increase their chances, it’s obvious for me. But there is not and can be no automaticity”.

Et alors?

The Spitzenkandidaten system is evolving. In 2014 the process was dominated by the largest political group and supported by a clear coalition. In 2019 the process is open, there is no clear majority emerging and the European Council will interpret the results of the vote in such a way that its candidate should be able to secure a majority. If it is the Greens-Social-Democrats-Liberals-EPP or Liberals-EPP-post-ECR majority depends on the outcome of the May vote.

Go out and vote.

About the Author

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski
I talk, I write, I speak, I study, I analyse, I teach, I hike, I run, I travel, I learn, I care. This e-home will be developed gradually. You can find information about me and about my publications and other activities.

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