On Wednesday 13th February, the European Parliament passed a resolution modifying the established Spitzenkandidaten process – changing the electoral and political landscape of the upcoming negotiations for Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor as President of the European Commission. The reform has repercussions on how the European Parliament, the democratic and co-legislative institution of the European Union, works when it comes into interaction with the European Council in the wake of the European elections later this year.
What does the change in the Spitzenkandidaten process do?
The Spitzenkandidaten process was first established by the European Parliament in the run-up to the 2014 European elections. The process itself is nowhere to be found in the founding Treaties of the European Union. It is based on a liberal interpretation of Article 17 (7) of the Treaty on European Union, which states that “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission”. The original Spitsenkandidaten process was pushed by pro-integration MEPs to enhance supranational democracy in the EU. Such a push was to come at the expense of the intergovernmentalism found in the European Council, consisting of the heads of state or government of the EU Member States.
Due to the lack of legislation clearly outlining the constituent and procedural elements of the process, there was no universally accepted definition of the Spitzenkandidaten process. Some held that the process strictly meant that the European Parliament could only approve the Spitzenkandidat of the biggest ‘europarty’ for the Presidency of the European Commission. Others believed that the European Parliament could approve any Spitzenkandidat that led a negotiated coalition with a parliamentary majority. The majority within the ‘Brussels Bubble’ concurred with the former definition of the process.
Yet, after the changes proposed in the Jáuregui Report were adopted in Wednesday’s vote, the dispute has been definitively answered. The European Parliament may support any candidate who commands a negotiated majority in the European Parliament of at least 353 seats. This enables political groups in the European Parliament to barter, discuss, and make wider compromises regarding Commission positions and the top jobs of the Union – earlier, more or less, reserved for the centre-right EPP.
How did political groups in the European Parliament vote?
The vote to adopt the resolution was passed with a comfortable majority of roughly two-thirds of the MEPs. Clearly in favour of the resolution were the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D, the centrist-liberal ALDE group, and the Greens/EFA. Against the resolution were the right-wing ENF, the right-wing or populist EFDD, the national conservative ECR, the left-wing GUE/NGL group, and miscellaneous Non-Inscrits. The breakdown of votes offers some clues on how the groups in the European Parliament view the supranational nature of the Spitzenkandidaten process, especially when taking the context of the approaching European elections into account.
The liberal ALDE group has notably criticised the system of the Parliament automatically approving the candidate of the strongest europarty, to the point of refusing to put forward an individual candidate. Instead, they proposed that the European Council should choose a nominee from a wider array of candidates and that the European Parliament should not require the individual to be the Spitzenkandidat of the strongest group. The recent change is not exactly what ALDE had previously proposed but closely matches the objectives that they sought – breaking the EPP’s quasi-monopoly on the Union’s top jobs.
The same logic also works for the centre-left PES (S&D) and the EGP (Greens/EFA). Backing a change towards compromises in the Spitzenkandidaten process heightens the chances of their own candidates being selected for the President of the European Commission at the expense of Manfred Weber and the EPP.
Matters get more complicated on the part of the centre-right EPP. The European Peoples’ Party has dominated the European Parliament since the 1999 European elections and are projected to remain as the largest group after May’s election. Under the former Spitzenkandidaten system, the EPP would once again have commanded the leadership of the European Commission for the next five years. Politics in Europe have, however, been on the move in recent years. The EPP is forecasted to suffer the second largest loss of seats in the European Parliament, according to our current European Elections projection, only slightly behind S&D – constituted mainly by their current Commission partner, PES. The eurosceptic political right has been on the rise, while the current Commission composition of EPP, PES (S&D), and ALDE are expected to witness net seat losses in May. Due to these circumstances, the relations between the three aforementioned groups will likely be strained in the coming years. More flexible compromises, then, are also in EPP’s interests if it wishes to keep its distance from ACRE (ECR) and those further to the right as they have done thus far.
What does the change mean for democracy in the EU?
Strictly speaking, a resolution of the European Parliament is a non-legally binding instrument, but it is almost unimaginable that the Parliament would ignore such a notable resolution just three months after its introduction.
On one hand, it could be contested that the change to the Spitzenkandidaten process is a loss for direct democracy within the Union. The candidate of the party which receives the most votes in the EU is no longer guaranteed to hold the highest office of the Union.
On the other hand, the change in Spitzenkandidaten process enhances supranational democracy in the EU and brings the protocol of the European Parliament more in line with most established democratic systems. For example; in Finland, Sweden, and numerous other EU Member States, the prime minister, analogous in this case to the Commission President, does not necessarily have to be the leader of the most voted party in elections. Instead, anyone who commands a negotiated majority in the parliament can be approved by the parliament, much like in the new Spitzenkandidaten system.
On a wider level, more flexible democratic arrangements usually reduce the chances of political deadlocks. And it is indeed democratic, by any reasonable definition, that the President of the European Commission is decided by the majority MEPs who are elected by universal suffrage of EU citizens.
The effect that the newly adopted Jáuregui Report will have on the aftermath of this year’s elections will likely be significant. Many in the European Council have signalled their continued dissatisfaction with the European Parliament’s power and influence over the Spitzenkandidaten process at the expense of national governments. These leaders will likely contest the contents of this resolution after the election this summer. The reform and codification of this process in the Jauregui Report have arguably strengthened the hand of PES (S&D) to form a liberal-left Commission in opposition to the EPP and the eurosceptic right with their Spitzenkandidat, Frans Timmermans, as President. Although, we must wait until May to see the full effects of the resolution in question manifest.
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Julius Lehtinen and Dylan Casey Marshall, who co-wrote this article, are members of the Europe Elects team, both experts in European politics.