European Parliament should be more involved in choice of Commission president than provided for by Spitzenkandidat systems

EU Priorities |

The European institutions soon have to choose new heads of the Commission and the European Council for the next five years. At present most of the debate is over the choice of the next Commission president and whether it should be by the so called Spitzenkandidat system favoured by Germany and which was introduced in 2014 when it led to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker.


Spitzenkandidat system is flawed but provided forum for debate

The Spitzenkandidat system is in theory supposed to make the president of the Commission democratically legitimate. Lead candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) are chosen by the main political groupings in the European Parliament (EP) who then debate with each other in televised sessions broadcast across the EU, before EP elections. According to this system, which is not part of the treaties and so not compulsory, the Spitzenkandidat for the European Parliamentary group which wins most members is chosen as Commission president. In practice it is not an effective system since most voters vote for the national party they like. They  have little awareness of who the Spitzenkandidaten are and are very unlikely to be influenced by their performance in debates or other campaigning to change their vote.

Moroever, the broadly based centre-right European Peoples’ Party has for a long time been the largest party and, though losing some seats in the May elections, remained comfortably the largest group. The system if always adopted would nearly guarantee that the EPP candidate is chosen. On this occasion the EPP Spitzenkandidat is Manfred Weber of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), which is specific to Bavaria and which is more right wing than the Christian Democratic Union which represents the rest of Germany. He is not well known outside of Bavaria except within the European Parliament those who closely followed its debates. Moreover he has little administrative experience. He is backed though not very enthusiastically by Chancellor Merkel and a few other heads of government but is strongly opposed by other heads of government including President Macron.

The aim of making the choice of Commission president more democratic and transparent is a desirable one but if followed rigidly on every occasion the Spitzenkandidat system would not succeed in this objective. The system has provided a useful role in giving an opportunity for the different candidates to become a little better known at least to a modest section of the European public highly interested in EU affairs, and to test themselves in debates. Two candidates in particular, Frans Timmermans a Dutch Socialist and current vice-president of the Commission for rule of law and better regulation, and Margarethe Vestager, a Danish Liberal and competition commissioner, came across as potentially suited to the role. Timmermans won a vote from a viewing audience on his performance in a debate that could be followed online on the Politico website from Maastricht on April 29th, the second largest number of votes going to Bas Eickhout, candidate for the Greens and also Dutch.

At present however the favourite appears to be Michel Barnier, who though linked to the EPP was not their Spitzenkandidat. Over the last two and a half years he has been the Brexit negotiator for the Commission and previously was responsible for the internal market in financial services, thus with some relevant experience although limited. It is possible that Germany may decide that, if its candidate is effectively vetoed by President Macron that it does not want to reward him by agreeing to a French man for the role.


MEPs should try to exert influence on the choice

The president and indeed each commissioner has to be approved by the European Parliament and MEPs should try to have an influence on the debate. However it will be difficult to make a choice that clearly reflects the results of the Parliament elections since gains were made on the one hand by illiberal parties on the right and on the other by parties belonging to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), which is to be renamed Renew Europe, and the Greens. If ALDE is considered on the centre-left the new EP is almost exactly evenly divided between parliamentary groups to the right of centre and to the left of centre. Given that the incumbent since 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, was right of centre there is a good case that the new one be left of centre. Furthermore, although the Greens remain quite small the pressing nature of climate change and other environmental issues would suggest that a new president should have some background of interest in these matters.