The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in late 2009, introduced several changes to the EU’s constitutional architecture. Among other innovations, the Treaty also stipulates that the European Council should propose to the European Parliament a candidate for Commission President, taking into account the result of the European Parliamentary elections.
As a consequence and for the first time ever, in 2014, the European Parliamentary elections were followed by the nomination of the so-called Spitzenkandidat, i.e. leading candidate for the winning European political party. However, the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President in 2014 happened along a very particular set of circumstances, all of which are currently not present.
- Firstly, Juncker was the Prime Minister of Luxembourg until 2013, and as such he had already been a member of the European Council for 18 years. Manfred Weber, the EPP’s lead candidate and front-runner for the Commission Presidency, has never even held an executive office.
- Secondly, all major European parties, except for the ECR, nominated a Spitzenkandidat in 2014. As has been widely reported, the ALDE has decided not to do so for the 2019 elections, citing its disagreement with the Spitzenkandidaten system and has instead chosen to nominate a team of no more than seven candidates for the EU’s top job(s).
- Thirdly, the grand coalition between the EPP and the S&D was holding strong in 2014. The latest seat projections in 2019, however, indicate that both parties will need to engage in a coalition with at least one other party to reach a majority of seats in the next European Parliament.
- Lastly, Juncker was regarded as a Christian social democrat, while Manfred Weber leans more towards the conservative wing of its party, making the connection with the second biggest party, the S&D, more difficult.
While the current situation does not share many similarities with the one in 2014, there are certain elements which nonetheless reinforce the Spitzenkandidaten process in 2019.
- Firstly, there is a wide consensus among all political parties that the system increases voter turnout. Seeing that the average turnout in the 2014 elections was only 42% with certain Member States registering only 20-30% turnout, the use of high profile lead candidates is expected to increase turnout. Closely connected thereto is the strong media presence and attention for the phenomenon, which in turn amplifies the salience of the European elections.
- Secondly, there is broad public support for the use of Spitzenkandidaten, as it is seen by citizens to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU.
- Thirdly, the current Spitzenkandidaten have started their election campaigns early: the EPP’s Manfred Weber’s listening tour already started in January. Back in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker only started his campaign a couple of weeks before the elections.
- Lastly, a number of Member States have already voiced their opposition against the system, instead relying on the letter of the Treaty which indicates it remains the competence of the European Council to nominate the next Commission President. They stated they are not bound by the European political parties’ Spitzenkandidaten, arguing that they will propose a new candidate themselves if necessary. The European Parliament, on the other hand, has emphasized on several occasions that it will not elect a candidate who was not a Spitzenkandidat.
Taking into consideration the current political circumstances, it remains unclear whether the Spitzenkandidaten process will survive the European Parliamentary elections. Additionally, the lack of direct debate between Manfred Weber and S&D Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans – they are scheduled to go head-to-head in just one EU-wide debate – does not add to the system’s democratic legitimacy. Should the European Council opt not to follow the European Parliament in proposing a Spitzenkandidat, they still have a credible alternative in the person of Michel Barnier, member of the EPP and the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, who has indicated his willingness to do the job during what some have called a shadow campaign.