MEPs at odds with member states over Spitzenkandidaten process

Written by Martin Banks on 15 October 2018 in News
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The European Parliament will veto candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker if they do not adhere to the so-called Spitzenkandidat system, says senior MEP, Jo Leinen.

Photo credit: PA Photos


A senior German deputy has warned that the European Parliament “will not accept” any candidate for the European Commission presidency unless that person secures the backing of MEPs.

The tough stance taken by S&D group MEP Jo Leinen is in sharp contrast to European council president Donald Tusk, who has argued that EU member states should have the final say on who replaces Jean-Claude Juncker as commission president.

Leinen’s position, supported by Juncker and the majority of MEPs, puts the parliament on a direct collision course with member states over the selection of what is regarded as the bloc’s most senior post.


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In a resolution on 7 February 2018, parliament further agreed to reject any contender for the job who is not a lead candidate of one of the European political groups, and Juncker has confirmed the commission’s support for the process, calling it a “tiny piece of democratic progress”.

However, leaders from 27 member states say they do not want to repeat the same process that put Juncker in office after next year’s European elections. They rejected the so-called ‘Spitzenkandidat’ - lead candidate - system at a meeting in Brussels in February.

TUSK IN THE TUSSLE

European Council president Donald Tusk has repeatedly expressed his disapproval of the Spitzenkandidat method to choose a commission chief and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has echoed his objection.

“The idea that the Spitzenkandidat process is somehow more democratic is wrong,” Tusk said, adding that every EU leader agreed that the council “cannot guarantee in advance that it can propose one of the lead candidates for president of the commission. There is no automaticity in this process.”

The Spitzenkandidaten process was designed as a way of giving EU citizens a say in the appointment of commission president, whereby each parliamentary political group selects a lead candidate, which is where the name Spitzenkandidat comes from.

The post then goes to the nominated lead candidate of the European political group that wins the most seats in the European elections.

"We will not allow EU citizens to be deprived of the possibility to choose the leader of their executive. Any successful candidate for commission president must be backed by a majority of MEPs in the parliament, which reiterated numerous times that it will only support candidates who presented themselves and their programmes as Spitzenkandidat during the election campaign” S&D group MEP Jo Leinen

The process was used for the first time in 2014 when Jean-Claude  Juncker became commission president. He was the lead candidate of the EPP group, which won the most seats in the 2014 European elections.

Some EU leaders have voiced their opposition to the process, including French President Emmanuel Macron.

MOVE TOWARDS MORE ACCOUNTABILITY

Speaking to this website on Monday, Leinen said, “The commission is the EU's executive and not the secretariat of national governments in the European Council. Its ongoing transformation towards a real government must continue.”

“That means that the parliament does not only elect the commission president, but also has the appropriate instruments to scrutinise and control the actions of the commission,” he said.

"We will not allow EU citizens to be deprived of the possibility to choose the leader of their executive. Any successful candidate for commission president must be backed by a majority of MEPs in the parliament, which reiterated numerous times that it will only support candidates who presented themselves and their programmes as Spitzenkandidat during the election campaign,” Leinen added.

Leinen’s stance is backed by Polish EPP member Danuta Huebner, a former EU commissioner who chairs the constitutional affairs committee.

She told The Parliament magazine: “Electing the Spitzenkandidaten for president of the commission creates a direct link between the commission and parliament and we see this process as a reinforcement of the democratic accountability of the European institutions and as an enhancement of the role of the European political parties. It is also a powerful democratic advance with a view to helping citizens develop the feeling of ownership of Europe."

“Electing the Spitzenkandidaten for president of the commission creates a direct link between the commission and parliament and we see this process as a reinforcement of the democratic accountability of the European institutions and as an enhancement of the role of the European political parties. It is also a powerful democratic advance with a view to helping citizens develop the feeling of ownership of Europe" Polish EPP MEP Danuta Huebner

EPP KILLED THE SPITZENKANDITATEN STAR

Parliament has agreed that it will reject any candidate standing for commission president who is not a lead candidate of one of the European political groups.

The largest European political groups – the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – have all declared that they will follow the Spitzenkandidaten procedure for the next elections in May 2019.

ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt, however, says that “by rejecting transnational lists, the EPP killed the Spitzenkandidaten process.”

German Greens group member Sven Giegold subsequently accused Verhofstadt of “breaking his word” that voters would decide the next president.

A number of candidates have already declared their candidacies for the job, including Frans Timmermans - the commission first vice-president in charge of better regulation, interinstitutional relations, the rule of law and the charter of fundamental rights.

Timmermans is seeking to be the PES candidate and has won support from German Social Democratic Party leader Andrea Nahles.

“I am convinced that Frans Timmermans unifies and strengthens our European party family and will lead us to a strong common result in the election for the European Parliament next year,” Nahles wrote in a letter dated October 5 to PES President Sergei Stanishev and Treasurer Ruairi Quinn.

Timmermans now has a sufficient number of parties backing him - nine, including his own Dutch Labour.

Meanwhile, energy union commissioner Maroš Sefcovic has announced that he is running to become the socialist candidate for the presidency. Last week, he met PES president Sergei Stanishev to hand over the 10 letters of support he has so far received during the nomination process.

Another candidate is former Prime Minister of Finland and current vice-president of the European Investment Bank, Alexander Stubb, who announced his bid to become the EPP’s candidate recently.

Stubb, a former MEP, will go up against his colleague and leader of the EPP group, Manfred Weber.

Another Spitzenkandidat-hopeful is German MEP Ska Keller, the Greens/EFA group candidate.

Keller’s programme focuses on human rights, a “fair trade policy” and the end of austerity.

“The protection of refugees is more important to me than ever. And I am committed to the rule of law and democracy, so that the EU is not undermined from within,” Keller said.

The deadline for EPP members to submit their candidacy ends on 17 October, while the PES will announce its nominees on 19 October.

About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

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