Comment

Parties and Spitzenkandidaten

Richard Corbett / Feb 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

The EU treaty now requires that the Commission President be voted in by the European Parliament (EP) as one its first political acts after each election. This was the culmination of several reforms through which Member States changed the relationship between the EP and the Commission.

In 1992 (Maastricht Treaty), they changed Commission’s term of office to coincide with that of EP, and provided for the EP to vote to approve or reject the Commission as a whole. In 1997 (Amsterdam Treaty), they provided for a first parliamentary vote to confirm the President of the Commission and they gave him/her the right to choose other Commissioners jointly with national governments. In 2003 (Nice Treaty), they introduced QMV for the European Council decision on who to propose as Commission President, eliminating national vetoes, and gave him/her powers to appoint Vice Presidents and to dismiss individual Commissioners. In 2007 (Lisbon Treaty), they required the European Council to henceforth take into account the European election results when deciding who to propose as Commission President and described the EP’s vote as the “election” of the President.

These changes strengthened perceptions of the Commission as a political executive needing the support of a parliamentary majority. It might be a relatively weak executive (facing a bicameral legislature that it does not control through compliant majorities), and inevitably be a coalition in party political terms, but executive branch it certainly is: charged with implementing agreed policies, endowed with the right of legislative initiative, responsible for executing the budget, and employing the bulk of EU civil servants. The fact that henceforth, neither its President, nor the college as a whole, could take office without the approval of the Parliament was seen as the democratic counterpart to this. And the fact that the choice of a new President would be one of the first things a newly elected EP would vote on, made it inevitable that the choice of President would feature among the issues in the election campaign.

The main European parties therefore started to put forward candidates for Commission President as of the 2014 European elections, the first ones following the ratification of the Lisbon treaty.

Although a majority in the EP support this idea, the EP itself is not involved in choosing the Spitzenkandidaten. Nor, even, are the political Groups in the EP. It is European political parties who do so. These are the European federations of like-minded national parties, and their key decisions are taken with the involvement of national party leaders (who are often government leaders). Thus, Juncker was chosen as the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat ahead of the 2014 elections at the EPP Congress in Dublin, with European Council members Merkel, Rajoy, Kenny, etc involved in the decision. Likewise, when they chose Weber for the 2019 elections at their Helsinki Congress. The same applies to the other main parties.

For parties, this is normal behaviour ahead of an election at any level. After a national parliamentary election, the head of state, when choosing a potential prime minister to propose to the national parliament, then has to look at who can secure a parliamentary majority, often (but not always) the candidate from the largest party. That is a widely understood procedure in many countries. At EU level the European Council (acting, by analogy, like a collective head of state) must assess who can secure that majority.

The fact that that in 2019, a compromise candidate was found who was not a Spitzenkandidat also matches national practice. Take, for example, Italy. Most parties have a candidate for Prime Minister ahead of national parliamentary elections, which sometimes results in one of them being proposed to parliament by the head of state and securing a majority (e.g. Prodi in 2006, Berlusconi in 2008, Meloni in 2022), but can equally lead to a new name being found when none of the party candidates can build a majority (Letta in 2013, Conte in 2018 who hadn’t been a candidate in the elections at all). Von der Leyen was the EU’s equivalent of Conte.

This “normally but not always” situation could turn out to be what applies at EU level too.

After the 2014 elections, the EPP won the most seats and its candidate, Juncker, being acceptable to the socialists subject to agreements on his programme and priorities, secured the necessary majorities quite easily. Only two of the 28 members of the European Council (Orban and Cameron) voted against Juncker and he was duly elected by Parliament.

After the 2019 elections, the EPP again won the most seats, but its candidate, Weber, was unable to secure support from other parties. The PES candidate, Timmermans, seemed more likely to build a cross-party coalition. The most senior EPP head of government, Merkel, at first accepted that it should be Timmermans, but other EPP leaders didn't follow her. It took two meetings of the European Council to agree on who to nominate. Negotiations were on a party-to-party basis (the Prime Ministers of Croatia and Latvia led the negotiations for the EPP, those of Spain and Portugal for the Socialists, and of Belgian and the Netherlands for the Liberals).

Agreement was eventually reached on a compromise candidate: von der Leyen (EPP). The PES was compensated by Timmermans becoming First Vice President able to choose his own portfolio and Borrell becoming High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and the Liberals (whose support was now necessary as the EPP and the socialists no longer had a majority together in the EP) by Michel becoming President of the European Council.

This package, however, split the socialists. In the European Council, due to opposition from her socialist coalition partners, German Chancellor Merkel had to abstain on the decision to propose von der Leyen – itself an illustration of how party was more important than nationality in this process. In the Parliament, Von der Leyen had to pay particular attention to the S&D group, making several policy commitments to them ahead of the vote. The S&D Group decided to back her, but in practice remained divided. The vote in Parliament was close: she received 383 favourable votes, just 9 more than the required majority of members (374).

These 2014 and 2019 experiences had different outcomes, but the discussions both started with a focus on the Spitzenkandidaten, with one of them acceptable in 2014, but with a laboriously negotiated compromise candidate and package agreed in 2019, narrowly endorsed by the EP.

In 2024, parties are again putting forward Spitzenkandidaten. Will the European Council subsequently propose one of them? We will see. It is in any case not something that can be legislated for. National constitutions do not explicitly require the head of state to propose as Prime Minister the candidate of the largest party or the one capable of assembling a majority coalition – a flexibility that can be important. But there is, in most countries, an expectation that the starting point is with such candidates, especially as they will have featured in the election campaign. That is now the situation at EU level too.

Richard Corbett

Richard Corbett

February 2024

About this author ︎►

cartoonSlideImage

Erdogan

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

US Gladiators

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Scholz hacker

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Navalny

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Orbán Valentine

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Trump - Be Afraid

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Biden & Co

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Orban and Ukraine

See the bigger picture ►

soundcloud-link-mpu1 rss-link-mpu soundcloud-link-mpu itunes-link-mpu