What is the ‘Spitzenkanditat’ process and why it is central to EU reform?

23 May 2019


The EU has been in need of reform for years. Critics take aim at its lack of transparency and say its processes are too complicated. Now, as the 28 member states prepare to go to the polls, EU leaders hope these elections will provide an opportunity to rebrand. But legislators in Brussels have ignored warnings about the method used to elect the President of the Commission: the spitzenkanditat.


The spitzenkanditat (a German word meaning ‘lead candidate’) was first used in 2014 to appoint Jean-Claude Juncker, and it is the process to be used to select the next President of the European Commission.


Each of the major pan-European parties puts forward a candidate, and once the Parliament votes are counted, the candidate representing the party with the most votes (in 2014 this was the European People's Party) is put forward to the Council who then appoint them as the new president. Each party’s selection process is relatively unknown, however, this year each candidate was named 6-12 months ago and they have been campaigning ever since.


Prior to 2014, the process was far more shady. Each president was assigned to the position behind closed doors, having been suggested by the Parliament and decided by the Council. Voters from member states had often never heard of their Commissioning President, only adding to the EU’s reputation for opacity. By announcing the leader before and allowing for political campaigning, debate and public scrutiny, the spitzenkanditat, is seen to have introduced a refreshing sense of transparency to the process.


Such reform is welcomed and, in practice, it answered those who have made careers out of attacking the European Union’s democratic legitimacy. However, the spitzenkanditat is just a convention and none of it is written into EU law. Instead, it is an advisory process, described at Politico as ‘little more than a handshake agreement among the main European political parties, the European Council and the European Parliament, over how to interpret a vague treaty provision.’


So the EU, the ‘paragon of democracy’, has no legal method in place to appoint its most senior position. Those wishing for a reformed EU, under the spitzenkanditat, are kept waiting.


As it awards the presidency to the party with the most seats in Parliament, the spitzenkanditat requires a clear victor. The European Parliament has traditionally been held by the two main parties, which raises questions about diversity and the centralisation of power. Yet this may no longer be the case, as the 9th European Parliament is forecast to be more balanced than ever before.


Polls suggest the two main parties, the EPP and the Socialists & Democrats, will both lose seats and this election will see an end to their domination. Without clear majorities, the selected president will be in a precarious position. In either scenario, the spitzenkanditat gives the new president no mandate and any argument that it offers the European people more clarity is, frankly, false.


This year the Council has again confirmed that the process is non-binding, and after long campaigns and live TV debates, the front runners are having to answer whether their campaigns will actually transfer into official office. Last weekend, two weeks prior to the election, Manfred Weber of the EPP, who is most likely to be appointed president, responded to criticism of the process by saying he is ‘unconcerned’. He added, ‘the people decide who takes responsibility — no one else.’


Yet, this is not the case and the concern for Weber is that even if his EPP take a majority there is no guarantee he will sit as the next president. In fact, some are discussing the candidacy of veteran French politician and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. A member of the same party as Weber, Barnier has enhanced his popularity having handled the Brexit process with composure, ensuring the EU27 avoided any further collapse. Some argue that if the Brexit process rolls on into the autumn, which many think it will, Barnier may be best suited to head the Commission to ensure a smooth exit and avoid no-deal.


In a bizarre turn of events, support for Barnier could well gain momentum in Westminster by British MPs attracted to a Commissioning president who understands the complex nature of the negotiations.


Weber has also been unable to produce the required charisma and a recent poll showed only 26% of Germans, Weber's countrymen, knew who he was..“Honestly, I don’t know who this is,” said a 43-year-old Strasbourg municipal councillor when shown a photo of Weber. Barnier denies he has begun a campaign but a Commission official close to him has admitted; ‘He is not going to say 'no' if the Council puts his name on the table.’ The damage that would cause the legitimacy of the process is undeniable, however it seems feasible that a well-supported and experienced candidate like Barnier might well jump the queue.


The spitzenkanditat process is damaging the EU and by failing to offer clarity to their voters, the threat of populism has not gone away. In the current elections the goal is to reestablish control and show that the European Union has learnt from Brexit. The spitzenkanditat process fails to do this. To bounce back, the European Union must work harder to detangle its processes and do more to become clearer to its audience.



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