Putting the ‘European’ into the European elections

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"The introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten system would vault the European elections into whole new heights of democratic legitimacy, EU-enthusiasts and political analysts alike were telling everyone who wanted to listen. Eventually, European democracy would be revived by US-style primaries and intense EU-wide debates." [Shutterstock]

When the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” or lead candidate method for designating the Commission president was introduced in 2014, it was celebrated as a democratic revolution. Five years later, it is difficult to find anyone seriously questioning the method – but the enthusiasm has somewhat washed away, writes Christopher Glück.

Christopher Glück is the president of the Young European Federalists.

So how do lead candidate nomination plans stack up against the promise of strengthening European democracy?

After the implementation of the Spitzenkandidaten system, it was the first time that a formal link would be established between the outcome of the European elections and the decision on the personnel for the most powerful position in the European institutions. Oddly enough, still in 2009, the EU did not have an even remotely transparent and democratic system for the selection of what would be its head of government.

The introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten system would vault the European elections into whole new heights of democratic legitimacy, EU-enthusiasts and political analysts alike were telling everyone who wanted to listen. Eventually, European democracy would be revived by US-style primaries and intense EU-wide debates.

Five years later, it is difficult to find anyone seriously questioning the method, but the enthusiasm has somewhat washed off. TV debates between lead candidates during the campaign may have given a European touch to the elections for an educated audience but did little to change the perception in the wider public: European elections are essentially 28 national ones, held in the same week.

With the magic that dwells in every novelty slowly fading out, we see more clearly the shortcomings of an improvised system: in the absence of transnational lists, not every EU citizen can cast their vote for each of the candidates.

Also, increased accountability of the Commission president to the European Parliament will only become a reality once the candidate needs to find a parliamentary majority rather than simply being elected on the merit of being the candidate of the largest group.

And yet, Spitzenkandidaten are still the best tool that European party families have at their disposal to tell an exciting and personalised story. A tool to make European politics more tangible and deepen voters’ understanding of the European dimension of their electoral decision.

If European party families are serious about realising this promise, however, they will have to engage wholeheartedly with the procedure, invest substantial resources in promoting their lead candidate, and commit to promoting a European agenda – through a single, EU-wide political manifesto – during and after the elections.

Failing to respect these criteria would result in the democratic selection of the Commission president remaining but a shallow side-event, falling short of the aspiration for an EU-wide public sphere.

Against this backdrop, how do nomination procedures of European party families stack up against those lofty ideals? Will the nomination systems be designed in a way that stimulates awareness about the European elections beyond the party members?

Will the identification of individual party members with their party family be strengthened by the nomination procedures? Will the candidates come with a political programme that enjoys credible support within their party family?

The European People’s Party (EPP) was the main beneficiary of the lead candidates system in 2014, and it is the first party family to have defined its procedure for 2019, although some of its member parties were amongst the least enthusiastic about renewing the exercise.

The EPP is planning to repeat the same delegate election model that resulted in Jean-Claude Juncker’s coming ahead of Michel Barnier in 2014.

This time around, candidates must be supported by their own member party and no more than two additional member parties, so as to – in theory – increase the number of contestants for the position.

The lead candidate will then be elected during the EPP’s congress in Helsinki on 8 November by a democratic majority vote of the delegates, thus involving select individual party members while not going the extra step to a full membership or even open primary election.

It is unclear at this stage whether candidates are expected to present substantive political manifestos and to what degree the successful candidate has leeway to define the EPP’s election programme – this could be a major shortcoming in the process.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) is keeping an even tighter control on the outcome of the nomination process. Already in 2014, PES required candidates to find support of their own member party and 15% of all other member parties. A threshold so high that only one candidate, Martin Schulz, was able to meet the requirements.

For the 2019 elections, PES is tightening the system some more, now requiring the support of 25% of all member parties in addition to the nomination by the candidate’s own party. Should it still come to a vote, a “PES European election day” would be held on 1 December, during which each member party can choose their preferred candidate.

The votes of the member parties are then weighted according to their membership numbers. This system keeps national party leaders firmly in control, although member parties are free to define the methodology for their own decision-making.

It remains to be seen if any party chooses open primaries or delegate votes on a national level. On the bright side, PES has decided to give the eventual nominee a key role in shaping the PES election manifesto.

The European Greens (EGP) were the most courageous in 2014, being the only party family to attempt a really open online primary to reach beyond its member base. However, with only about 22,000 votes, the turnout was underwhelming.

This time, the Greens are falling back into the mainstream of European party families with a system that requires contenders to be nominated by their own party, be supported by another five member parties, and then be elected by a delegate vote in November.

Candidates are asked to present their political agenda while, however, sticking to a maximum of two pages. This is hardly enough for substantial policy debate.

On the brighter side, the youth organisation of the EGP (Federation of Young European Greens, FYEG) will be able to nominate its own candidate, although it will also have to garner the support of five other member parties.

Lastly, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE) was struggling the most with their nomination in 2014. Candidates were allowed to present themselves with two supporting member parties.

However, a possible success of one of the candidates, Olli Rehn, was dreaded by some member parties to such a degree that the situation put the unity of the party family at risk – Olli Rehn was Commissioner for Economic Affairs when the Greek crisis started, with all that ensued.

A political solution was eventually found and Guy Verhofstadt became the ALDE lead candidate without a real competitive election, at a party assembly in Brussels.

For 2019, ALDE is still hesitant to go public with its ideas on the process, perhaps because there is still hope it might be able to lure Emmanuel Macron into supporting an ALDE candidate for Commission president.

Overall, European party families are doing just enough to keep the idea of “lead candidates” alive and to add a bit of European colour to what will once again be mainly national elections.

There are many ways to improve the European dimension of the 2019 elections. Transnational lists were one of these alleys and were sadly blocked by a conservative majority in the European Parliament. But they are not the only way.

The European elections suffer, first and foremost, of a lack of European debate. The chicken-and-egg problem of European elections is that, in order to have a European demos, one needs to start creating the structures that would allow it to thrive; and in turn, these structures will become more effective when the process is complete.

Widely televised debates among lead candidates to the presidency of the Commission, a Europeanisation of the campaign through, for example, the inclusion of EU party logos alongside the national ones, a more open process of selection of the lead candidates (at a minimum, with the involvement of the full membership base): all of these tools, together, would certainly improve in the eyes of citizens the EU dimension of EU elections.

Unfortunately, as of now, the level of commitment and resources invested into genuinely European elections and the lead candidates’ system, as in 2014, does not seem sufficient for them to be a truly transformative element in European democracy.

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