EU Elections: From “Spitzenkandidat” to Coalition Candidate?

The European Union is under threat. From the outside, it is confronted by a revisionist Russia and a U.S. president seemingly set on demolishing the rules-based international system. Even more troubling is the rise of illiberalism within Europe’s own borders, a trend that challenges its very identity as a community of law and democratic values. Accordingly, the question of who will become the next President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, after the European elections next May will be crucial for the future of the EU.

As candidates start to announce their intention of running for the EU’s highest office, the election of the Commission president remains as much a question of how as it is a question of who.

As candidates start to announce their intention of running for the EU’s highest office, the election of the Commission president remains as much a question of how as it is a question of who. In 2014 the European Parliament forced Europe’s national leaders to accept the introduction of the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” or lead-candidate system, where each pan-European party group selects a lead candidate, with the candidate of the party receiving the most votes being elected President of the European Commission.

Technically, there was no change at all. The European Council, the body representing national governments, still proposes a candidate which the European Parliament then either elects or rejects. However, under the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Council has to take the result of the European elections into account in its proposal. This prompted the European Parliament to assert its growing power, with all major political groupings within the parliament pledging to reject any candidate that had not previously run as a “Spitzenkandidat.” National leaders were confronted with the choice of either going along with the process or explaining why they stand in the way of democratic choice. Thus, the European Council went along, albeit unhappily, with the process.

For its proponents, the lead-candidate system is a long overdue democratization of the EU that has strengthened the significance of European elections.

For its proponents, the lead-candidate system is a long overdue democratization of the EU that has strengthened the significance of European elections. However, the process is not without its flaws; for instance, due to its strength in the European Parliament, the Commission president is likely to always be a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). Indeed, in the unlikely event that Italy’s controversial far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, who is currently under criminal investigation for illegal confinement and the abuse of power in the “Diciotti case” succeeds in forging Europe’s populists into a party alliance for his own campaign, should he then be elected Commission president?

Consequently, it is not just national leaders who are calling for a reform—if not outright abandonment—of the lead-candidate system. Nevertheless, with the European Council rejecting any “automatic mechanism” for selecting the next Commission president and the European Parliament vowing to defend the process, we could be headed for an ugly stand-off. Yet, even if the implementation of the lead-candidate system was a substantial step toward the democratization of the EU, does that necessarily mean that the process should remain unchanged?

Members of the European Parliament are usually quick to point out that the lead-candidate system is little more than applying the parliamentary system of government at the European level. However, strictly speaking, this is not quite correct: in most member states it is not necessarily the candidate of the strongest party that becomes the head of government, but rather the party or coalition that can command a majority in the parliament that usually provides the head of government.

Thus, why not allow electoral alliances of like-minded parties to nominate a lead-candidate rather than reserve this right for the party groups that are already present in the European Parliament. Although skeptical of the lead-candidate system, French president Emmanuel Macron is already pursuing such an alliance. Instead of joining one of the existing political groups within the European Parliament, Macron now seeks to replicate his success in the French election by building a “progressive alliance” that transcends traditional party lines.

Discarding the lead-candidate system altogether would mean a return to the time where back-room deals between national leaders determined who would become the next President of the European Commission.

Discarding the lead-candidate system altogether would mean a return to the time where back-room deals between national leaders determined who would become the next President of the European Commission, reducing the European Parliament to little more than a rubber-stamp of their decision. Displaying such unambiguous disregard for the voice of the people in the governance of Europe, at a time when the EU is already struggling against accusations of unaccountability, would further damage the EU’s standing in the eyes of its citizens.

However, recognizing the right of electoral alliances to nominate their own lead-candidates would allow contenders other than just the candidates from the center-right EPP or the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), its center-left counterpart, a realistic shot at the highest office of the EU. Who knows, in the end, the evolution of this process might even lead to the emergence of something resembling a genuine coalition government at the European level.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Michael Trinkwalder

KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt

Michael Trinkwalder was a Research Intern at AICGS for Summer/Fall 2018. Currently, Mr. Trinkwalder is pursuing a master's degree in International Relations at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany. In his program, he concentrates on issues of foreign and security policy as well as diplomatic history. He is particularly interested in transatlantic relations, the future of the EU, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and Chinese foreign policy. Before joining AICGS, Mr. Trinkwalder spent time abroad studying in both the UK and China and worked as a project assistant at the Aspen Institute Germany. He is a founding member of the university group for foreign and security policy at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt as well as a member of the Young European Federalists.