Let us be honest: Although the Spitzenkandidaten are currently touring Europe like third-rate rock stars in an attempt to make themselves known to voters, most of them deep in their heart already suspect the top candidate process is a dead end. And here’s why.
Everybody knows which playbook the lead candidate process could follow in theory this time – in practice, it looks doomed to fail. But let us take a look back.
It is 2014. The euro crisis is largely over but the fallout in the form of all-time low public trust level in the European institutions sits round the neck of Europeans citizens and politicians alike.
After years of complaints that the EU’s top jobs were handed out on the basis of backroom deals and handshake agreements between national leaders, the Spitzenkandidat process was informally established in 2014.
Not written in stone into the EU treaties but a more vague treaty provision, the decision was made per informal agreement between the main European political parties, the European Council and the European Parliament.
The Council, acting by qualified majority, is to nominate for Parliament’s approval a Commission president “taking account of the results of the European Parliament election.”
As the top candidate for the European People’s Party (EPP), Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker found himself elevated to the Commission presidency.
The Spitzenkandidaten scheme worked for Juncker, a rare example of a politician who gives the appearance of a dull bureaucrat while also having a personality, and his promise of a “last chance Commission” fit the mood of the times.
“After the election results are out, parties will very quickly need to come back together to make decisions,” Klaus Welle, the Parliament’s Secretary General – and a rival to Martin Selmayr in the ‘prince of darkness’ stakes – said at an event in Brussels today. This has to happen “in 24 to 48 hours”, otherwise it could “derail the process” and the Council would seize the opportunity.
As an experienced prime minister, Juncker met the unwritten “one of us” requirement set by Jacques Delors. And with the grand coalition between Christian Democrats and Socialists still intact, he was the most acceptable cross-party pick, describing himself as a ‘Christian Social Democrat’.
Also, five years ago, the big political groups in Parliament, marshalled by president Martin Schulz and EPP leader Joseph Daul were keen to protect the process.
Back to 2019, and with the European elections 82 days away, we find ourselves in a completely different situation.
Although some have ministerial experience, none of the Spitzenkandidaten is a former head of state or government, which in the eyes of the Council would not qualify them as “one of us”. Although strong candidates, few if any of them could secure cross-party support.
French president Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche are a disturbance in the system itself and as he could end up as the kingmaker, this adds another unknown feature in the process.
Barring a miracle, the EPP will still be the biggest party after the May poll. But both the EPP and the Socialists face their own internal battles and lack the cohesion needed to defy EU leaders. That makes it more likely that EU leaders will take the Spitzenkandidat process back into their own hands.
Bad news for Manfred Weber, good news for Michel Barnier and other compromise candidates.
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by Alexandra Brzozowski
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Not enough time to check out all Europe-wide news this morning? Have a look at today’s editions of The Capitals with Greece’s Tsipras attacking Europe’s far-right, Macron’s EU vision and some ‘galactic scale stupidity’. Want more of this? You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.
Look out for…
Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in Washington DC where she will meet the United States Trade Representative in an attempt to build bridges in the looming EU-US trade war.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]