I was present at the birth of the Spitzenkandidat system and know why it doesn’t work

Denis MacShane / Jul 2019

Photo: Shutterstock


The blockage over the choice of the next leadership team for Europe is a  drama long foretold. I was there in Act 1, Scene 1 in the spring of 2009 just ahead of the 2009 European Parliament elections. The direct elections to what had previously been a parliamentary assembly of delegates sent from national parliament was meant to turn the European Parliament into the living beating heart of democratic accountability in the unending, never-quite-finished business of European integration and construction.

But voters had a different view. Most ignored the European Parliament vote every five years and turn-out sunk each year to a level normally associated with municipal elections. Parties treated the European Parliament as either a dumping ground for superannuated  ministers and politicians rejected in national elections but who still needed a salary and a jobs.

Parties abused the handsome allowances for assistants and for MEPs which allowed many to buy a flat or house in Brussels and pocket the profit when it was sold at the end of a mandate.

The Labour Party in the 1980s used the first-past-post system of electing MEPs (now replaced by a proportional regional list system) to send young politicians to hold an MEP’s job as a kind of waiting room before returning to the UK as an MP.

The German parties took the European Parliament seriously and insisted being an MEP was a full-time job and not a stepping stone of a Bundestag career. But for most parties it was possible to have a dual mandate as an MEP and a national politician with a double salary to boot.

After the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon there was a universal clamour for what was called the “democratic deficit” to be filled in. These treaties had followed on from the Single European Act  of 1985  when Margaret Thatcher forced through the abolition of national vetoes to create the Single Market.

Some like Joschka Fischer called for a  combined president of the Commission and Council to be elected directly by all European citizens rather like the US president.

But most baulked at the idea of an EU supremo with US-type presidential powers.  The Germans in particularly that is was through political parties – strong, independent, properly funded by the state not by corrupt business interests of other lobbies – that democracy was best sustained.

But how to inject a real dose of democracy into the choice of top EU leaders, especially the President of the Commission?

Commission presidents of quality had been vetoed by individual national leaders, notably John Major in 1994 and Tony Blair a decade later. The second choice candidates were not stellar when compared to Jacques Delors who set the gold standard as a Commission president.

This discredited the idea of horse trading between national leaders each with a veto if a proposed Commission president was not cup of tea.

So in the back-rooms of the European Parliament the idea of a Spitzenkandidat was cooked up. Each of the big European Parliament parties – the EPP, S+D, ALDE and so on would nominate a Spitzen or lead candidate for the EP election list.

Whoever got the most votes and had the biggest block of MEPs was thus the democratic choice of European voters and would have the authority to be a Commission president with full democratic authority.

I was representing the UK Labour Party on the executive committee of the Party of European Socialists in the spring of 2009. Into out meeting came the PES president, the former Danish prime minister, Poul Nyrup Rassmussen and Martin Schulz, the ebullient German MEP and leaders of the Socialist MEPs.

They informed us that they had agreed with EPP and ALDE colleagues on the Spitzenkandidat concept. I politely asked if this had been discussed with affiliated parties like Labour or PSOE in Spain or the Parti socialiste in France, had it been discussed with national party leaders like Gordon Brown in Britain and others who held government office.

It was clear that this proclaimed democratic proposals to close the democratic deficit in the European Union had not been discussed, debated, or democratically decided by the parties concerned.

Rather it was a top down decision by well-meaning Euro elites in the main European Parliament parties.

It is far from clear that many or indeed any of the main parties have discussed and voted on the Spitzenkandidat system in their own countries.

In 2014, the EPP selected Jean-Claude Juncker, who was an experienced multi-lingual senior minister and prime minister. He might well have emerged under the old system.

By 2019, the EPP choice of Martin Weber, who had no ministerial experience, had covered for the anti-democracy of Viktor Orban and other dodgy EPP leaders in new EU member states,  and who was a poor linguist was not going to be accepted to many EU non EPP national leaders, notably Emmanuel Macron.

Indeed the Spitzenkandidat system guarantees in perpetuity the domination of the centre-right if the assumption that the Commission president must be from the party with the most MEPs.

The European Parliament election in 2014 was a farce. Labour was so terrified of the EU that the party banned Martin Schulz from campaigning in the UK. In Germany, the CDU posters promoting an EPP vote all had pictures of Angela Merkel on them and Jean-Claude Juncker was a non-person for German voters.

So today we are stuck.  The horse trading which was just about possible with a dozen of so member states becomes extremely difficult with 28. Weber got less than a quarter of all votes cast at the end of June. He is unacceptable to key figures as are other Spitzenkandidats.

Someone will emerge but when the dust settles serious thinking need to be done on how to make European democracy come to life.


Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

July 2019

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