The Socialist and Democrats group, the second biggest political grouping in the assembly, also wants voters to get the chance to use EU-wide transnational lists for the first time.
The S&D group launched the initiative at an online conference on electoral reform where civil society and academics came together in a bid to enhance the so-called “European dimension” of EU parliamentary elections.
Under the Spitzenkandidaten process, European political parties, ahead of the European elections, appoint lead candidates for the role of European Commission President, with the position then going to the candidate of the political party capable of marshalling sufficient European parliamentary support.
It was tried in the last elections in May 2019 and German MEP Manfred Weber, as head of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) which emerged victorious in the elections, should have been in pole position for the commission presidency.
But his candidacy never got off the ground and, in the end, EU national leaders settled on what was seen as a compromise candidate, former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen.
The S&D Group now want the process repeated in 2024 but are saying that, this time, all sides need to be fully committed to the Spitzenkandidaten principle.
One of the speakers at the S&D event was Domènec Ruiz Devesa, Parliament’s rapporteur on European electoral law, a special procedure where the assembly enjoys the right of initiative.
“We should go beyond 27 national elections in parallel and instead create a genuinely pan-European constituency with transnational lists promoting a campaign on EU issues and making EU political parties visible” Domènec Ruiz Devesa MEP
Devesa, S&D spokesperson for constitutional affairs, said he also supports introducing, for the first time, EU-wide lists of candidates for voters to choose from, rather than just national lists.
This is an idea that, again, has been mooted in the past and extensively championed by the likes of former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff.
Duff argued that such lists – and the Spitzenkandidaten process – would help reconnect citizens to the EU.
Devesa agrees and told the conference, “With the highest voter turnout for 25 years in the 2019 elections, we have a chance to build on that momentum to boost the European political sphere with the next 2024 Parliament elections ahead.”
“We should go beyond 27 national elections in parallel and instead create a genuinely pan-European constituency with transnational lists promoting a campaign on EU issues and making EU political parties visible.”
“With a shared constituency list, headed by each political family’s candidate for Commission President, we can also make up for the missed opportunity in 2019 to create a direct link between the choice of Commission president and the outcome of the elections.”
Devesa welcomed the chance to “discuss different steps to improve the democratic legitimacy of the EU, with the aim of enhancing trust, confidence and accountability in the policies we are shaping and the laws we are making in the EU.”
“The choice for the Commission Presidency was undermined in the last European elections in 2019 but this process would be a step towards a move democratic EU. This is not just a bureaucratic issue but a necessary tool to achieve the EU’s priorities and that is why, today, we are calling for reform” S&D Group president Iratxe García MEP
Further comment comes from Marek Belka, an S&D Group vice-president responsible for constitutional affairs, who said, “The EU‘s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has rightly been to work together; to fight the virus, to develop a vaccine strategy and to agree a joint Recovery Plan.”
“While the EU is more visible than ever in our daily lives, when it comes to European elections, too often it is still purely national debates that influence voters and it is national rules that determine the electoral procedure.”
“We need more common debates and we need more common standards on electoral rules to better reflect the reality of the EU’s decision-making process that is all about working together to find common solutions to shared challenges.”
S&D Group president Iratxe García, who opened the webinar, said she too supports reform, adding, “The Spitzenkandidaten process will allow voters to indicate a preference for the commission presidency.”
“The choice for the Commission Presidency was undermined in the last European elections in 2019 but this process would be a step towards a move democratic EU.”
The Spanish MEP added, “This is not just a bureaucratic issue but a necessary tool to achieve the EU’s priorities and that is why, today, we are calling for reform.”
She said the Socialists also want changes to the EU decision making process to “enhance parliament’s role” and to give it the right to initiate legislation along with the Commission.
“In the last elections this principle was not taken seriously and we need to work on this. Our leaders should be known before an election campaign, not afterwards, so voters know who the leading figures of the EU will be. We must not lose the Spitzenkandidaten method but improve it” former S&D MEP Jo Leinen
García added, “We also want a pan-European constituency because this would, while respecting the geographical balance of the EU and the small and medium sized EU Member States, enhance the EU dimension of the elections.”
Further contribution came from former S&D MEP Jo Leinen who told participants, “In the 20 years I was an S&D member this issue was a priority for me but, unfortunately, a promise was made in the 1976 elections to follow 27 national rules, not European rules.”
“Recent Oxford University research and public opinion on the issue says that many people were not interested in the European elections because they say the parties argue about national subjects and issues - but that is not a European election.”
“This points to why European elections are seen as second class elections. If we want it to be first class we must be seen as doing things together. So we must take this chance to bring in the missing parts of the mosaic.”
“This includes strengthening Parliament’s role with more co decision and the right of initiative and giving Parliament investigative rights.
“The existence of European parties is important but the Spitzenkandidaten process is something we could deploy at the next election and we don’t need a new law to do it.
“In the last elections this principle was not taken seriously and we need to work on this. Our leaders should be known before an election campaign, not afterwards, so voters know who the leading figures of the EU will be. We must not lose the Spitzenkandidaten method but improve it.”
“Last time, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel decided on Ursula von der Leyen and that weakened the Spitzenkandidaten process. I do understand the fears of smaller Member States when it comes to electoral reform but we do need pan European lists and a Spitzenkandidaten process that works.”
European Commissioner for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourova told the event, “The Commission is an honest broker in this and is ready to provide its expertise if Parliament and Council deem it useful on the lead candidate system and transnational lists. This webinar will provide fruitful input on this debate.”