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.
Leaders from 27 member states do not want to repeat the process that put current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in office after next year’s European elections. They rejected the Spitzenkandidat system at a meeting in Brussels on Friday (23 February). British Prime Minister Theresa May did not attend.
Under the Spitzenkandidat process, the top Commission job goes to the lead candidate from the pan-EU political party that receives the most votes in European Parliament elections.
MEPs back the system and passed a resolution earlier this month that threatened to reject any nominee for Commission president who does not stand in next year’s election as a party’s lead candidate. They argue the process is more democratic because candidates campaign throughout the EU so that citizens know who they elect.
Juncker came to power after his centre-right European People’s Party won a majority in 2014. That was the only time the Spitzenkandidat process has been tested.
But heads of state do not want to use the system again because it would take away their power to nominate a candidate themselves.
European Council President Donald Tusk used sharp words to express his disapproval of the method to choose a Commission chief.
“The idea that the Spitzenkandidat process is somehow more democratic is wrong,” Tusk said after the meeting on Friday.
He said every leader agreed that the European Council “cannot guarantee in advance that it can propose one of the lead candidates for president of the Commission. There is no automaticity in this process.”
Tusk—and the heads of state he represents—have taken issue with the Parliament’s demand for an automatic appointment of the winning party’s candidate. But while Tusk does not want a guarantee, he said it is still possible, and even helpful, if the politician who is chosen as Commission president was a party’s leading candidate.
He does not want to promise that the European election outcome will determine the next president, which would mean giving up heads of state’s power to veto the nominee. Instead, the 27 heads of state should nominate a candidate themselves and secure “double democratic legitimacy” through MEPs’ approval afterwards, Tusk said.
The Council chief did not shy away from a public spat with Juncker over what “automatic” means. The two presidents spoke to reporters while sharing a stage at a news conference.
Tusk and Juncker have a history of public disagreements, clashing at earlier summits over the Nordstream gas pipeline and repeatedly over migration. The squabble over how to replace Juncker when his term ends in 2019 only added to the tensions between them.
“I do think the treaty is very clear. The treaty is not describing a process of automaticity,” Juncker responded, speaking after Tusk.
The heads of state and MEPs disagree because the Spitzenkandidat process is not written into EU treaties. That leaves room for interpretation, and lawyers for the Commission and the Council disagree over whether the treaties will need to change for the process to be set into stone.
The treaties’ guidance on choosing a Commission president is thin: the European Council must “take into account” the outcome of the European elections when they nominate a candidate.
Tusk appeared to belittle the discussion over the process as “very much a Brussels bubble topic”.
Juncker responded by describing a list of his other proposals to shake up the Commission, and recent organisational changes he made to move his former chief of staff Martin Selmayr into the job of Commission secretary general.
“In the Brussels bubble these things are pretty major,” he said.
Heads of state agreed unanimously that they do not want to guarantee that the Spitzenkandidat will become Commission president, but they did not get into lengthy discussions over institutional workings and EU treaties in their comments at the end of Friday’s meeting.
One EU official explained before the meeting that the leaders’ public criticism of the process would likely be muted.
“We don’t think that’s what Europe really needs today, to have a deep tension with the European Parliament,” the source said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed up Tusk’s objection, telling reporters that the Spitzenkandidat process “cannot become a complete automatism”.
She said the leaders did not discuss whether they should nominate another sitting head of state to take over Juncker’s job next year.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite tweeted before the meeting, “Don’t count your Spitzens before they hatch. #EuropeanParliament election still a year away.”
— Dalia Grybauskaitė (@Grybauskaite_LT) February 23, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron also criticised the process.
The EU source said one reason leaders are reluctant to pin the Commission presidency on European elections is that the political landscape is shifting in a number of member states, with extreme groups gaining more support.
“There are so many unknown elements in this equation that to speculate now would be really premature,” the official said.
It would be “very unreasonable and irrational” if leaders guarantee that a Spitzenkandidat from the winning political party in next year’s election would end up as president, the source added.
But MEPs are holding their ground.
Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the European People’s Party in the Parliament, doubled down on the house’s resolution.
“People should know before the election who can become the President of the European Commission. Everything else would throw Europe far back to the days of backroom diplomacy,” Weber said in a statement on Friday.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani called the Spitzenkandidat system a “proposal to reinforce democracy”. He lashed out at the Council’s preference for leaders to nominate a candidate themselves.
“We don’t want a bureaucratic Europe,” he said.
MEPs could still reject the European Council’s nominee when they propose a new president next year.