How will the new European Parliament look like? Who is going to be the next President of the European Commission? Should the European Commission and the European Council have a single President? These are some of the questions people are asking a year ahead of the European Parliament elections.
The answers, however, are far from being clear. It is likely that for the first time, pro-European parties in the European Parliament might not be able to gain a majority. This leads the question: which party would have a mandate big enough to put forward the first candidate for the President of the European Commission? The European Parliament’s position is more than clear about its preference to use the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, but it is not that certain whether the Member States will automatically give their blessing to it. The EU Treaties require the European Council, acting by qualified majority, to nominate for the European Parliament’s approval a candidate for the President of the European Commission “taking account of the results of the European Parliament election”. It is worth noting that the Spitzenkandidaten procedure requires that the political parties name their candidates already before the end of this year.
The Spitzenkandidaten procedure was first applied in 2014 when the current President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected. Yet, four years later it is still unclear whether this procedure is the right way to engage with voters, to bridge the EU democratic gap and to legitimise EU institutions. While the recently conducted Eurobarometer survey shows that citizens’ support for the European Union has hit a record high since 2007, it is doubtful whether those who plan to cast their vote in May 2019 are aware of the fact that they do not only elect members of the European Parliament but they also have the power to indirectly choose who the new President of the European Commission could become.
The leaders of the EU institutions have been making an outstanding effort in the past decade to bring the robust system of the EU closer to citizens. Direct and indirect outreach, simplified communication and use of social media have increased significantly the awareness around the work of the institutions. However, there is still a long way to go before candidates for the European Commission presidency would campaign directly in Member States. It is also certain that the transnational lists of the Members of the European Parliament will be left for the next elections in 2024. Only once all these steps have advanced, then we can finally say that the democratic system of the European Union is becoming a reality.