EU leaders to debate re-use of Spitzenkandidaten process for 2019 European elections

Written by Martin Banks & Brian Johnson on 23 February 2018 in News
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MEPs warn EU heads of state and government that they will not accept a 'back room' deal candidate for post of European Commission president..

European Parliament and EU flag | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


European leaders from 27 member countries were meeting in Brussels on Friday for an informal meeting to discuss institutional issues.

The agenda for the one-day summit, which excludes the UK, includes discussions on the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” procedure for the upcoming European elections.

This process allows European political parties to designate one candidate each for the post of European Commission president.


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Current commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was the first benefactor of the Spitzenkandidaten (German for lead candidate) process in 2014. The next European elections are set for May 2019.

The Parliament has taken a strong position on the issue, warning EU national governments that it is ready to reject any contender for Commission president that is not selected under the Spitzenkandidaten process.

Commenting ahead of the meeting, European Council president Donald Tusk said, “The European political parties intend to nominate lead candidates as their front-runners for this post. They applied this process for the first time in 2014. Parliament demands that the candidate put forward by council be picked exclusively from among those lead candidates. The aim is to establish a kind of automatism.”

Further comment came from European Green Party co-chairs Monica Frassoni and Reinhard Bütikofer who said, “It is of fundamental importance that European leaders give their backing to the Spitzenkandidaten process.”

“We believe this is the most straightforward, transparent, and fair option currently on the table for European citizens to elect a leader capable of standing up for their interests. It also ensures a direct link between voting for a political family and the person elected to head the Commission.”

“We will not accept a Commission president who has not run in the elections as a top candidate. I'm tired of demanding what goes without saying at every premiership election” EPP group leader in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber

Their colleague, Greens/EFA co-leader Ska Keller said, “Leading candidates are an important step towards a more democratic EU because they give European elections a face. If member states want to give up that progress because they are afraid their own politician group will not win or because they prefer making back room deals, that would be an insult to European citizens.”

“The heads of states and governments should keep in mind that it is the European Parliament that votes on the Commission president. The Greens/EFA group will certainly not support a candidate which the Council has pulled out of its hat in a backroom.”

The Centre-right EPP group leader in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber noted, “We will not accept a Commission president who has not run in the elections as a top candidate. I'm tired of demanding what goes without saying at every premiership election.”

The EPP, he said, was sending a strong signal that it wants “ more democracy in the EU” and that it supports Spitzenkandidaten.”

Meanwhile Socialist politicians gathered at an event in Bruges on Thursday called “ Europe Together” to discuss the issue with Sergei Stanishev, president of the pan European Party of European Socialist, tweeting, “Council will have to hear our message: we want the Spitzenkandidaten process to go ahead in 2019. This is for democracy's sake and for citizens' sake. No more backroom deals.”

“Council will have to hear our message: we want the Spitzenkandidaten process to go ahead in 2019. This is for democracy's sake and for citizens' sake. No more backroom deals” President of the pan European Party of European Socialists, Sergei Stanishev

“Most EU member states have parliamentary systems. Citizens understand that when they elect a Parliament, that Parliament elects a government. Like this, the European elections have to dictate the shape of the commission.”

German Socialist MEP Udo Bullmann, the current interim leader of the S&D European parliamentary group, said, “As Socialists and Social Democrats, we must be as close to citizens as possible. If Europe doesn't care about those on the fringes in our societies, how can we expect people to care about Europe?”

Belgian Socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt commented, “We've always been the ones who stand with those on the margins of our societies. And we will always be.”

Her colleague, veteran German MEP Jo Leinen said, "I hope we will have more than one candidate. It is a shame that the EPP voted against transnational lists. They only did this to fight Emmanuel Macron but not for the people. We are in favour as we want real democracy for people.”

More comment came from German Greens MEP Sven Giegold, the European Parliament's rapporteur on transparency, accountability and integrity of the EU institutions, who commented, “The Commission must not transfer the election of Commission president back to the back room.

“The heads of government should question whether the Commission presidency is the right target for Spitzenkandidaten, or whether competition for senior posts in the Parliament would make for a more credible alternative contest” former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff

“The candidate who has a majority of the Parliament behind them should become president of the Commission. Parliament will not allow being downgraded to rubber-stamp a proposal by the heads of government. This is about the credibility of European democracy. The achievement of the Spitzenkandidaten process of the last European elections must not be weakened."

However, former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff warned, “Without transnational lists to head, it is questionable whether the Spitzenkandidaten experiment of 2014 can, or will, be repeated in 2019.

“The Council should concentrate on finding the best possible successor to Juncker, in the knowledge that the choice will have to be consensual between Parliament and Council.

The ‘back room’ horse-trading on key EU posts, has come under scrutiny across the EU institutions as a whole, not just for the Commission President post.

The selection of current European Parliament president Antonio Tajani in January 2017 was marked by an ill-tempered and strongly ridiculed election campaign following the collapse of a decade-long back room power-sharing deal between the EPP and Socialist groups

Power sharing ‘Grand Coalition’ politics in the European Parliament has been the relative norm in the assembly since the first direct elections in 1979.

The process is seen as a way for the main pro-European groupings to exclude eurosceptics and extremist groups and to carve up the distribution of key posts such as the position of Parliament president.

However calls for more transparency in the selection of European Commission president have opened up to examination the parliament’s often archaic portioning out of top posts, with Duff arguing that, “The heads of government should question whether the Commission presidency is the right target for Spitzenkandidaten, or whether competition for senior posts in the Parliament would make for a more credible alternative contest.”

About the author

Marin Banks is senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine.

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of the Parliament Magazine

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