European Union – The Election of the Commission President Explained.
Jean-Claude Juncker – Consilum of the European Commission (E. Zucchi)
If there is one hot and confusing topic surrounding the European Parliament (EP) elections, it has to be the Spitzenkandidaten-System. If you are not familiar with the term or the debate, let me explain: The post of Commission president (currently Jean-Claude Juncker) is not formally electable, but the European Council (heads of states and government) chose a candidate they find most suitable. Of course, their choice has to, somewhat be based on the election results. The candidate picked by the European Council has to then be approved by the freshly elected parliament. During the last elections, in 2014, the major parties used so-called Spitzenkandidaten. Every party presented their lead candidate and for the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) that candidate was Juncker. Last time, after the election results had been published, and it was clear that the EPP was the biggest party, all of the other Spitzenkandidaten dropped out and supported Juncker.
From an institutional perspective, this means that the decision-making powers of the European Council have been reduced to favour the European Parliament’s role. The Council never formally agreed to this procedure and it is true that many heads of state and government do not agree with this procedure as it reduces their powers and say in this matter. However, the Parliament did not give the Council a real choice. This is due to the fact that the whole procedure was sold to the public as giving them a say in who becomes the next Council president. So there was no room for the European Council to choose anyone other than Juncker after the public had elected him with the Spitzenkandidaten procedure.
The next elections are just a couple of months away and so far, the whole process is very chaotic. Some parties continued the process, as the EPP with the unknown Manfred Weber or S&D (the socialist party) with Timmermans. Other parties decided to let a team run, for gender balance. The liberal party ALDE decided to not participate at all (so far).
The whole idea behind this process was to reduce the democratic deficit of the European Union and to make elections, not only more transparent, but also to make the Commission president more identifiable. The academic and political debate around this topic is strong and on February 26th, the Centre for European Research in Maastricht (CERiM) together with the Maastricht Centre for European Law organised the event “The Spitzenkandidaten Process: Past Experience and Challenges Ahead”. In case you missed it:
Professor of law, Dr. Fromage, one of the keynote speakers was very critical of the procedure. For instance, she claims that the procedure makes promises to the public that it might not be able to keep. After all, the Council does have the final say and may still reject the Spitzenkandidat from the biggest party. Moreover, the candidate is very likely to present only a minority especially since all the major parties are projected to have heavy losses in the next elections. This goes hand-in-hand with another point that was raised. No matter how relatable the candidate is, he or she will never be a 100% relatable to all citizens. There are 22 official languages in the EU, which superhuman knows all of them? Let alone the big regional and cultural divisions between the Member States. Someone from Bulgaria will not be relatable to a Swedish person for instance.
Another big aspect raised by Dr. Fromage, as well as by the other keynote speaker Prof. Dr Thomas Christiansen, is the problem of politicisation. For Dr Fromage, the issue was more related to the increased the legitimacy of the Council president, while the College of Commissioners, as in the rest of the Commission, is assigned completely out of the sight of the public. So why would you politicise only one role and keep the rest untouched? Is it enough, or maybe it is not worth it at all, to politicise the role of president? Prof. Dr Christiansen criticised that the politicisation actually diminishes the other sources of legitimacy the Commission president enjoys. On the one hand, there is expertise and political experience and on the other, the treaties are a major source of legitimacy. Additionally, the process depicts the role of Commission president wrongly. Often, the Spitzenkandidaten process portrays the head of the Commission to be much more, creating an image of a Union president, despite there being no such post
The last argument I will mention is that the focus on the candidates’ qualifications is being diminished. When the public elects the Commission president, the main focus does not necessarily lie on his or her past experiences, achievements, neutrality or technical expertise. What are factors the European Council supposedly considers when making its choice? According to this argument, the process actually diminishes the quality of the Commission president and a person who is electable might not be the most qualified. A very prominent and extreme example is Donald Trump in the US. He has no political or technical expertise but was still elected. The counter-argument would be that because of the new, external source of legitimacy, the Commission president who is elected through the Spitzenkandidaten process is stronger and more capable to stand up to the European Council and disagree, since its members did not elect him but also because the heads of state and government tend to choose a candidate who is the least controversial; someone they can all agree on.
Regardless of what your opinion is, I think it became very clear how divisive the Spitzenkandidaten process is. Is it an improvement to the system? To some extent, yes, but the more important questions are: Is it enough? No. Does it complicate the electoral process and confuse European citizens? Yes! Just look at the current state, where the head-count of Spitzenkandidaten ranges from zero over one to two. Is it efficient? Very debatable. But do we have a good alternative? Not really, despite maybe transnational lists but this tool is unfortunately not available for the EP elections in May. But one thing is for sure: it will remain very interesting to follow the direction the Spitzenkandidaten process takes and whether it can overcome the challenges that lie ahead.