Analysts: 2019 EU elections will be transformative for European democracy

Julian Priestley and Nereo Peñalver Garcia [College of Europe]

The Spitzenkandidaten process was never going to be the magic wand, creating a new sense of engagement. But it will in 2019, if we are able to learn the lesson of 2014, said Julian Priestley and Nereo Peñalver Garcia, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Julian Priestley is a former Secretary General of the European Parliament and managed the European campaign of Martin Schulz. Nereo Peñalver Garcia is an EU official, currently working in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Their book, The Making of a European President, is published this month by Palgrave Macmillan.

They spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.

You have just published a book on the Spitzenkandidaten process, the new method of electing a Commission president, used for the first time during the 2014 elections. Is this process likely to become a permanent feature of the institutional balance?
Yes. We found none among the 50 or more experts interviewed (politicians, academics, journalists, diplomats, senior EU officials) who believe that the genie can be put back in the bottle. The European Council talks of reviewing the system for 2019, but everyone knows this to be an unconvincing face-saver for those like the UK, who were in the minority. The danger is rather that heads of government seek to impose on European parties their preferences for lead candidates before the elections.

EU leaders were not really in favour of this system, diluting their role in the selection of the Commission head. Some even described the setting up of the system as a coup by the Parliament leadership. Is that what really happened?

Yes. Heads of government were in denial about what was happening in the European Parliament, where a pact between the main leaders was being forged quite openly to ensure that the next president of the Commission would be the lead candidate most capable of constituting a parliamentary majority. They were also in denial in another sense; the same heads of government had participated in their respective party congresses, which had nominated presidential candidates. Pretending afterwards that this didn’t count simply undermined Council’s credibility.

In the end, has the system paid off?

A process of parliamentarising the executive has begun. The Commission has got some more legitimacy and authority out of the process. The Parliament has a greater say in the Commission’s work programme. But for the other aim – involving voters more in key decisions about Europe’s future- the picture is less clear-cut. And the new system failed to reverse the historic trend of declining turnout.

What are the key lessons learned from 2014?

Parties managed, for the first time, to put European-wide topics on the elections’ agenda, instead of the election concentrating exclusively on national politics or being a punishment vote for the incumbent government. Debates about austerity versus investment, free movement, the digital economy, TTIP or Ukraine, were Europe-wide themes.

For the first time also there were pan-European election tours by the candidates for the presidency of the Commission as well as Europe-wide TV debates. But the campaign started far too late for a continent-wide campaign. The candidates were selected just a couple of months before the elections, and the teams they put in place were almost overwhelmed by the challenge of making the first Europe-wide presidential candidates known to 440 million voters in the space of just a few months.

Moreover, the main levers of the campaign, including the bulk of the campaign spending, remained in the hands of national parties. There were also limiting national electoral laws putting limits to the visibility of the common candidates.

As regards the Europe-wide TV debates, it would have been better to concentrate on more focused prime time TV debates with key national broadcasters, rather than the specialist Europe-wide media.

During the campaign, almost every interview with a candidate would raise doubts about the process of lead candidates, to the point of excluding issues voters cared about. Next time candidates will not have to lose precious time defending the idea that the lead candidate of the party capable of getting the support of a majority in the EP will be the next Commission President. The credibility of the process is now established. This will leave more time for content and policy debate.

The European parties remain chronically under-resourced to fight a continental-wide campaign. They averaged spending one million euros on the campaign, less than 5% of the amounts spent by some of our national parties in general elections.

The campaign was too light in content. In particular, the parties did not have an autonomous policy formation capacity enabling them to re-resource the messaging of the campaign. And the manifestos, because of the way they are produced, tend to be lowest common denominators with few eye-catching proposals. The policy foundations and think tanks which are close to the respective European parties need to take a leading role in policy formation. Bureaucratic obstacles preventing European foundations from doing so need to be removed.

The three largest parties with candidates for the presidency were too hesitant in highlighting differences, in part because of the fragility and novelty of the process. In part because of the sensitivity inherent to a pan-European campaign, where a policy proposal such as the European mutualisation of debt can have widespread support in one member state, and make support plummet in another one. Particularly in the era of social media, where information travels at the speed of light.

Voter turnout has remained stable. Has the process succeeded or failed to galvanise public opinion?

The first pan-European presidential campaign was, without doubt, a daunting challenge: an electorate of more than 400 million voters in 28 member states using up to 24 official languages with, at least, 28 different cultures, political traditions, campaigning methods and sensitivities.

The Europeanisation of the electoral campaign was patchy. The presidential candidates had a considerable impact in some member states, especially in Germany, less in others. The Spitzenkandidaten process was never going to be the magic wand, creating a new sense of engagement of citizens in European construction. The main success of the first presidential campaign is that there was a campaign at all.

If the slide in voter turnout at these European elections has tailed off, it cannot be said that the European campaigns caught fire. The national parties fighting national campaigns on national issues remained largely in the drivers’ seat.

The policy differences between the principal contenders for the top job remained muted. The televised debates between them tended to reach only relatively small audiences on minority channels.

Campaign managers faced a wall of scepticism about the process itself- disbelief in the media, the commentariat and in national capitals, that the 28 heads of government would allow the decision about who takes on Europe’s top job to be decided at the EP elections in a choice between candidates chosen by European political parties.

But now that it has at least become clear that the parliamentary elections are decisive in choosing the Commission presidency. The credibility of what we call the Spitzenkandidaten process has now been established.

European political parties changed their internal rules to create a statutory framework for organising the selection,proof that they regarded the process as more than a one-off event.

What should be done differently in 2019?

The 2014 European campaign changed things. The parties with meagre resources and precious little campaign time performed minor miracles. But if the 2019 European elections are going to be transformative for European democracy, lessons have to be learned now from this shaky start.

The European political parties were fighting a pan-European campaign for the first time, but without the authority to shape the campaign, because the member parties continued to have all the main levers in their hands. Better cooperation is needed between European and national parties to extend the ownership of the campaign. This could be done by having a small steering group bringing together leading figures of key member parties and the European campaign manager on a daily basis.

The European parties are chronically short of financial and human resources, which were woefully insufficient to conduct a Europe-wide campaign. Public funding should be increased sharply for 2019. As regards staffing, one possible solution could be to allow staff from EP political groups to campaign for the European elections.

The early organisation of, ideally, open primaries, would trigger the most interest and confer the greatest legitimacy on the presidential nominees. At the very least the nominating conventions should have delegates elected democratically in regions and member states casting their votes for the party standard-bearer. The parties missed a trick by not involving party activists and sympathisers directly in the selection of the candidates.

Many politicians advocate for transnational lists in order to Europeanise the election campaign. Do you believe adopting such lists would enhance the Spitzenkandidaten process?

Transnational lists are not feasible for 2019, requiring unanimous agreement in Council to change the electoral systems in 28 member states. Its just not going to happen. Better to concentrate on incremental technical reforms which are feasible and could make a difference.

Lead candidates need to be given more visibility to increase their name recognition. European political parties should be allowed to support financially activities of national parties that promote the common candidate, such as buying TV, cinema or radio time or print media space to point out to the link between supporting the European candidate and the national member party.

A second measure could be to include in the ballot paper the name of the lead candidate of the European party the national party is affiliated to. Thirdly, broadcasting time for each of the presidential candidates should be allocated on top of the broadcasting time available for the member parties concerned. The current system gives parties without European candidates an unfair advantage.

Do you think the Juncker Commission, by becoming even more presidential than the Barroso Commission, can help improve the system next time around?

If the Commission is seen to be taking the political initiative on the key challenges-the Juncker Plan, the digital revolution, greater defence cooperation, a European approach to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, people will see it once again assuming a genuine political role. Underpinning this new confidence with a democratic mandate will then be a step people will see as a logical one. The president of the Commission is condemned to develop a presidential style; Juncker has already shown a sureness of touch in reforming the Commission in the most ambitious changes since the Delors era.

Last but not least, 2019 will be after key elections in Germany, France and possibly an in-out referendum in the UK. What impact will this have on the Spitzenkadidaten process if any?

Next time we might have eurosceptic parties presenting their candidates to the Presidency of the Commission.

The continuing success of populist parties in national elections from here until 2019 will just increase the pressure on European political parties to invest more in the success of Europe’s second presidential election.