Why the Spitzenkandidaten system will have little impact in 2024

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Political leaders may pay lip service to the Spitzenkandidaten system but it is unlikely to make much impact in the 2024 European election campaign, write Doru Frantescu and Dan Luca. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

Political leaders may pay lip service to the Spitzenkandidaten system, but it is unlikely to impact the 2024 European election campaign, writes Doru Frantescu and Dan Luca.

Doru Frantescu is CEO at VoteWatch Europe; Dan Luca is Associate Professor at SNSPA Bucharest.

Since the European elections in 2014, the concept of European primary elections has been launched in the European Union, followed by the Spitzenkandidaten system.

The results of the two editions are difficult to assess from the point of view of European democracy, but certainly, European communication has taken a step forward. In 2014, the mechanism strengthened the election of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. In 2019, however, the candidate who claimed victory, Manfred Weber, did not obtain the top job in the EU executive.

The blow came from his own EPP party, and the candidate approved by the Council and voted by the European Parliament was of the same nationality as him.

The question now is, what kind of Spitzenkandidaten system will we have for the 2024 elections and – perhaps even more pertinently – how will this influence the election of European leaders? Let’s not forget that the summer of 2024 will also bring a new President of the European Council.

We have had three difficult years, and crises of all kinds continue to hit the European system. The pandemic has strengthened the need for realism in Europe, and the war in Ukraine has brought countries closer to the EU.

Although the European Commission only mentions Spitzenkandidaten, it is difficult to imagine this system without primary elections.

The problem in 2019 was that seven European political parties put forward one or several lead candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission. Proposals and nominations without elections created an image of unelected leaders in the EU.

If we want a credible Spitzenkandidaten system, we need to have primary elections at the level of European political parties. The American model could inspire a realistic and impactful mechanism.

The approach of the European parties in choosing their candidates in 2019 led to a fiasco. It is no coincidence that this mockery of democracy led to the discrediting of the candidate proposed by the Spitzenkandidaten system and his subsequent rejection.

VoteWatch estimates that the EPP will have only 160 seats after the 2024 elections, losing 16; S&D will lose 5, reaching 140; Renew will drop from 103 to just 94. An increase for the ECR of 15 seats is expected, but also a dramatic decrease for the Greens/EFA of 23 seats.

The political centre (EPP, Renew and S&D) will shrink further. While the EPP would remain the largest group, the gap between the centre-right group and the Social Democrats will continue to narrow.

The nationalist camp is projected to gain significantly. Although ID is not expected to grow in size due to the weaker performance of its Italian and German members, ECR could gain substantial ground due to the growth of Fratelli d’Italia, Vox and the Romanian AUR (assuming it joins ECR).

Let us consider the composition of the Council at the time of the vote for the next European Commission President after the European elections.

Our projections show that the balance of power in the Council will be relatively close to the current picture, as many countries do not have legislative elections scheduled before 2024, and incumbents are finding it easier to get re-elected compared to the post-economic crisis period. Incumbents have won 4 out of 5 elections in 2022 so far (Portugal, Malta, Hungary and France) and with large parliamentary majorities.

Only Slovenia’s Janez Janša has been voted out of office in 2022 so far.

While we expect other incumbents to win re-elections up to 2024, there will still be very close races whose outcome could significantly impact the future balance of power in the Council. In Italy and Spain, right-wing forces are projected to win, but the differences between blocs in Spain are minimal, so we would not expect any significant majority either way. Greece’s elections are also likely to be hotly contested.

Finally, the Polish elections could be the most impactful, as the ruling Law and Justice party is currently projected to lose its legislative majority. However, the opposition will need to form a highly diverse coalition to unseat the PiS government, which will require considerable efforts by the different political families in the Polish opposition camp. A potential defeat of the Polish Conservatives could compensate for the likely gains of conservative and nationalist forces elsewhere (especially in Southern Europe).

Some topics can influence the institutional dynamics, but EU political reforms such as the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the transnational list, the discussions on European treaty change and President Macron’s Political European Community project will not affect voting intentions.

Based on these premises, the position of president of the future European Commission is still on the table. Of course, the EPP will look to force the re-election of Ursula von der Leyen for another five years. That is why the EPP will not propose a very aggressive European primary election system.

The approach taken by the Party of European Socialists will be worth following to be followed. There is a need for European leadership at the level of the Left, and the European elections are a good opportunity if a democratic, inclusive system is launched in advance.

At the level of the big European countries, we have different thoughts. For example, Germany has no interest in changing the president of the European Commission, even though von der Leyen comes from a party now in opposition.

The Liberal family will probably see an energetic battle in the primary election segment, but a charismatic leader needs to emerge from such an approach, though one who will not overshadow France’s President Macron.

Spain may be the key to the primary election, especially as Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has the potential to become the main leader of the European Left if he wins the Spanish elections in 2023. The problem is that these elections are held late, only towards the end of the year. This timetable might be too tight for a structured impact at the European level.

In this context, the position of President of the Council enters the algorithm of appointments to top European positions in 2024. Ursula von der Leyen will probably win a new term as President of the European Commission, but with the EPP leaving the position of president of the Council to either the Liberals or the Socialists.

All this leads to the conclusion that the primary elections and the Spitzenkandidaten system will fail to find real support in 2024 and will again be appreciated more by European experts with little impact at the domestic level.

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