It’s time for Europarties to pick up their Spitzenkandidat game

Spitzenkandidaten are only as strong as the Europarties make them, and so far, the parties haven’t done a great job.

, by Juho Mäki-Lohiluoma

It's time for Europarties to pick up their Spitzenkandidat game
Manfred Weber, the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, and Joseph Daul, EPP President, at the 2015 EPP Congress. Photo: European People’s Party (CC BY 2.0).

After resistance from the European Council in 2014, the Spitzenkandidaten process survived its first outing through persistence and determination from Europarties and the European Parliament. Five years later, public enthusiasm has fallen and the same Europarties have avoided open debate and lacked transparency when selecting their lead candidates. In light of this, is the Spitzenkandidaten process really an advance and a sustainable model of European democracy?

The European People’s Party elected its candidate to lead the European Commission in Helsinki last week. The decision was made by approximately 700 delegates. Of these delegates, around 200 were MEPs of the EPP Group, and the rest represented national member parties. In the race, the German EPP Group Chair Manfred Weber received 79 percent of the votes and the former Finnish Prime Minister Alex Stubb 20 percent. Weber’s victory was clear, but Stubb’s strong and bold campaign made sure that he wasn’t the loser.

As we know, the EU treaties require the European Council, acting by qualified majority, to nominate for the Parliament’s approval a Commission president “taking account of the results of the European Parliament election.” What this means exactly, remains a heated discussion.

When the Spitzenkandidaten process was first introduced for the 2014 elections, it was celebrated as a victory for European democracy. This time around, the enthusiasm has shrunk. Rooted more in a political agreement than Treaties, the Spitzenkandidaten system is only as strong as the Europarties make it. Regrettably, the bigger parties are not setting a great example.

Critics of the Spitzenkandidaten process say it’s an opaque process that strips the European Council and Parliament of their authority and duty to pick the best candidate and forces them instead to accept the winner of a process driven by party insiders. Regrettably, there’s a lot of truth to the criticism. The answer, however, should not be abolishing the system altogether. Instead, the Europarties should start making the most of it.

Since the Spitzenkandidaten process is a political agreement, it’s not simply an internal matter of the parties how they elect their candidates. Through internal selection procedures, the Europarties either give their lead candidate a broad mandate to run for the Commission presidency or undermine the entire process. The judgement of this is not one left to the party itself, but the newly-elected European Parliament, media and civil society.

In the EPP, the biggest problem in the race was the lack of transparency, debates and substantive discussion on policy. The idea of selecting lead candidates certainly can’t be that instead of the European Council, the selection of the Commission president is handed to a small group of Europarty insiders. Instead, the delegates casting votes in the party congress should represent the members and voters of the Europarty. In order for the Spitzenkandidaten process to gain democratic legitimacy, respective lead candidates should truly have the backing of their Europarty. At the very least, party members on national level should know who’s casting a vote on their behalf in the selection process and why.

The race itself should be a chance for the Europarty to engage in open discussions and for candidates to provide visions on where Europe should be headed in the next five years and beyond. With the EPP Spitzenkandidat selection, this prerequisite was fulfilled by only one of the two candidates.

Hey, at least it was a race!

One tends to sometimes be overly critical towards his or her own party. In the case of the EPP, the way the Spitzenkandidat race was conducted was far from perfect, but it was a race nevertheless - and no one can question the legitimacy of Weber’s position as EPP Spitzenkandidat. His strong showing on the scoreboard illustrates broad support around Europe, and I’m confident that if the EPP is the biggest party again in the spring, Weber will lead the next Commission - and do it well. With PES and ACRE, we didn’t even see a race, with underdogs pulling out and endorsing the front-runners Frans Timmermans and Jan Zahradil. ALDE, on the other hand, seems to have completely abandoned the process it long advocated for, which is all but shameful.

However, Weber’s strong performance shouldn’t silence the discussion of the legitimacy of the process. What if the race had ended 51-49? Surely this process we saw would’ve placed the Spitzenkandidat in a position where he or she would be struggling to justify the nomination for Commission presidency. Can one credibly present himself as a lead candidate for a pan-European party if the selection is made by only a handful of people, with virtually no public discussion, with no programme to go through, and with barely enough votes to clinch the nomination? My answer would be negative.

As of now, the Spitzenkandidat races of EPP, PES, ACRE, ALDE, EGP and other Europarties are won or lost behind closed doors, in the corridors of Brussels. They’re races of professional career politicians, and not only in terms of candidates but also in terms of voters. As a result, they’re races of deals and power-plays, which don’t do justice to the European democracy they’re meant to embody.

If there is a next time for the Spitzenkandidaten process, candidates should make a tour of all the EU capitals, with open public debates, with transparent programmes and with spelt-out visions, already in the internal selection phase. They should bring the EU and the Europarties to the people, not the other way around. And the people backing a party at the national level should know who is voting at the Europarty congress and what the are voting for.

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