Tajani ups the ante in Spitzenkandidaten controversy

President Antonio Tajani gives a speech one year ahead of the European Elections 2019 in Brussels, Belgium, 23 May 2018. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

One year ahead of the European elections, emboldened by a recent opinion poll, the European Parliament made key announcements on Wednesday (23 May), signalling a strong preference for the Spitzenkandidaten system that was rejected by the heads of state and government.

The European elections will be held from 23 to 26 May 2019. The dates were agreed unanimously by yesterday the Council after consulting the European Parliament.

According to the 1976 Electoral Act, European parliamentary elections take place in the period from Thursday to Sunday in the first full week of June. However, if it proves impossible to hold elections that week, the Act enables the Council, after consulting the European Parliament, to decide unanimously on other dates, provided these are no more than two months before, or one month after, the period provided for by the Electoral Act.

The Council decided on other dates for three previous elections (1984, 1989 and 2014).

Speaking to the press, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said that in preparation of the European elections, the institution he represents would do its job to inform citizens, but stressed that this was also a task of the national political parties, civil society and the media.

He stressed that the recent Eurobarometer results about the public opinion in all member states indicate a positive trend of support to the EU, despite Brexit, “or perhaps precisely because of this”. The survey was published while he spoke.

Indeed, in many European countries, including in the UK, unprecedented grassroots movements have sprung up in support of the EU.

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The confrontation

Tajani said the European elections were important because they would decide not only the make-up of the European Parliament but also who will lead the next European Commission, and what legislative program the EU executive should adopt.

According to Eurobarometer, nearly half of the Europeans, or 49%, support the Spitzenkandidaten system.

This system was used for the first time in the last elections in 2014 and brought Jean-Claude Juncker to the helm of the Commission as the common candidate of all EPP-affiliated forces in the EU. But he added that this system makes sense in the context of the real debate about Europe and its future.

Tajani’s announcement is not a surprise. Last February, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution that rejects any back-door deals among EU leaders on who to choose to lead the EU executive.

MEPs and EU leaders on collision course over Spitzenkandidaten process

MEPs are ready to pick a fight with EU leaders and reject any candidate for EU Commission president who is not voted for by the European electorate after a transparent and open process, like in the 2014 elections.

However, a few days later, the EU heads of state poured cold water on the Parliament’s plans [also supported by Juncker] by flatly rejecting the Spitzenkandidaten system.

Rift between Juncker and Tusk deepens over Spitzenkandidat process

EU leaders have dealt a blow to the controversial Spitzenkandidat system of electing a European Commission president, setting themselves up for a fight with the European Parliament. The rift between Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council chief Donald Tusk deepened as the two officials clashed over the process.

The good news

Indeed, the Eurobarometer results give hope that European citizens see European Union membership as a positive element, according to the survey, conducted from 11 to 22 April.

60% of citizens think that being a member of the EU is a good thing, while 67% among them consider that their country benefits from the membership. This is the highest score for this indicator since 1983.

Central European countries are the most enthusiastic about EU membership, whereas Italy and the UK are more Eurosceptic, as well as Southern Europe in general.

Southern Europe’s citizens, in addition to the Baltic countries, consider that their voice does not count in the EU. A feeling that needs to be mitigated, for the majority of Northern Europe’s citizens believe they are being heard. The general results have improved since the second half of 2016, after the referendum on Brexit.

The analysis also showed that a strong correlation exists between the prosperity of a country and its citizens’ satisfaction regarding EU membership.

The topics citizens feel most concerned about are (in order of priority): fight against terrorism (France, Belgium, Czech Republic), combating youth unemployment (Slovakia, Croatia), immigration (Italy, Germany), economy and growth (Bulgaria, Romania, Greece) and environment (Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden).

As for the date of the elections, only 32% can say when it will be held, and mainly in Eastern Europe. This figure corroborates the fact that European elections are not a priority compared to national elections and that it does not have a place in the people’s agenda.

Forgetting the date of the elections is an important reason why citizens do not vote. However, the main reason remains that voting will not change anything, for 60% of people who abstain. Abstention is strongly influenced by the socio-demographic origin: citizens who have a low level of education or the young are less likely to vote.

Media coverage and the information provided are a crucial element in motivating citizens. The European Parliament will give the means to anyone interested in the elections, civil servant or not, to campaign in favour of the vote. It will allow people to learn about the European elections and what is at stake on the local level as well.

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