Competition from the right: ECR and ENF nominate their Spitzenkandidaten

, by Bastian De Monte

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Competition from the right: ECR and ENF nominate their Spitzenkandidaten
Jan Zahradil, the ECR lead candidate at the 2019 European elections. © European Union 2018 - Source : EP (Genevieve Engel)

Following suit to the European People’s Party and Social Democrats, two of the European Parliament’s right-wing groups have now also decided who will lead them into the European elections next May – Czech MEP Jan Zahradil and Italian Vice-Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Under the legally not binding Spitzenkandidaten system, each party puts forward a candidate who would head the European Commission if they win the most seats in the European Parliament. After the nomination of centre-right candidate Manfred Weber and social democrat Frans Timmermans, Eurosceptics have also made their decisions: Jan Zahradil will enter the race for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) while Matteo Salvini will march into battle for Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). Anti-European forces are taking on mainstream parties and one thing already seems certain: The right will see significant changes.

ECR and Spitzenkandidat Zahradil

The European Conservatives and Reformists currently form the third largest group with over 70 members from 19 EU countries. It originally came into being after splitting from a joint group with the European People’s Party due to its members’ more critical stances on the EU. Generally pro-business, ECR has expressed resentment over the euro, and acts as a proponent of small government (“Doing less but better”) and national sovereignty, as well as controlled migration. Currently, the group mainly consists of the UK Conservative Party and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) but also includes members from the Danish People’s Party and the Finns Party as well as some AfD apostates.

Its chosen lead candidate is 55-year old Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, a chemistry graduate who participated in the peaceful Velvet Revolution. He later served as a national parliamentarian for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the country’s previously dominant centre-right force and the party of former President Václav Klaus – who was never hiding his wariness of further integrationist steps. Zahradil was elected to the European Parliament after Czech Republic’s EU accession in 2004 and he was the ECR group’s leader from 2011 to 2014.

In an op-ed, the conservative described the decided race between EPP candidates Weber and Stubb as a “choice between Coke Zero and Coke Light” and demands true conservative politics for Europe. While that would likely entail the renationalisation of competences, establishing the EU as “the world trade leader” seems to be among Zahradil’s priorities as well. Given the likely victory of a pro-European candidate, ECR is not officially endorsing the system. But despite not running as a true Spitzenkandidat, Zahradil wants to be the one to “start beating the drum in order to help shape an EU for the people and not Brussels”.

ENF and Spitzenkandidat Salvini

Further down the political spectrum, Europe of Nations and Freedom has only existed since 2015. It is currently the smallest parliamentary group, consisting of around 35 MEPs, most of whom come from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front National). Other notable members are Italy’s Lega, the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilders’ PVV. This group similarly focuses on sovereignty and national identity. Its members are known for their anti-migration, anti-euro and pro-Russia stances.

Matteo Salvini (45), Lega leader and Interior Minister of Italy, has been nominated to give right-wing populists a face in the upcoming elections. The former journalist and national parliamentarian, who was also first elected to the European Parliament in 2004, once infamously envisaged restoring racial segregation in trains – and that’s about all that has to be said.

What are the prospects for Eurosceptics?

Eurosceptics are on the rise. But the formation of a single group, as envisioned by ENF leaders, remains unlikely given diverging interests among nationalists in general, mutual reservations among individual parties, and simply the fact that both ECR and ENF have put forward their own Spitzenkandidaten.

However, current projections allocate only 48 seats to ECR (as of November 2018). The British Conservatives are leaving the European Parliament altogether and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, despite friendly ties, will not join ranks with Poland’s Law and Justice. The group would thus fall behind ENF and even the third Eurosceptic group EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy).

The latter, however, will probably see its demise in the face of Brexit and the loss of UKIP lawmakers. A significant number of current members also comes from the Five Star Movement. While the Italian populists can expect gains in May, their fate within the Parliament is yet to be decided, as the party combines Euroscepticism with rather left-wing policies. The other EFDD member party likely to see considerable gains will be Germany’s AfD. Its MEPs could join ENF – rendering the group the new big player on the right with up to 70 seats.

Spitzenkandidaten here to stay?

That these groups – albeit not actually endorsing the Spitzenkandidaten system – nominated lead candidates can, despite all Euroscepticism, be seen as a positive signal for European democracy. With more and more parties joining, the principle that the nomination of the Commission President should clearly be linked to the parliamentary elections is bolstered, giving people at least some choice.

European liberals, meanwhile, are not supportive of the game as the system benefits the EPP and makes it impossible for them to grab the top post. Similarly, Emmanuel Macron opposes it. His party (La République En Marche) will join forces with ALDE. By doing so, liberals can expect a comeback as the Parliament’s third-biggest group with about 90 seats. Represented in the European Council by seven heads of government from smaller Member States plus heavyweight France, they obviously want to have a say.

The future of the Spitzenkandidaten system thus remains uncertain. A potential remedy – although certainly not uncontested among federalists – could be the direct election of the Commission President by European citizens. With the two most successful candidates in the first round going into a run-off, it would also give the candidate of ALDE or another smaller group a realistic chance of winning. That does not necessarily entail more powers for the President, which is highly unlikely anyway, but it would at least give the EU a legitimate face and Europeans a choice.

One might then ask what would happen if a Eurosceptic candidate made it into the second ballot: It is certainly something our democracy can bear. And looking back at the French and Austrian presidential elections as well as the aforementioned projections, and considering that most Europeans still do believe in this project, we may well be confident that the pro-European candidate would prevail.

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