‘Spitzenkandidaten’ – the need for a smart solution

The discussion on important institutional issues has started at the highest political level.

During their informal meeting of 23 February, Heads of State and Government discussed three issues: the composition of the European Parliament after the 2019 elections (and after ‘Brexit’); the merger of the posts of President of the Commission and President of the European Council; and the issue of lead candidates of European political parties participating in the European elections as front-runners for the position of President of the European Commission.

The question of the ‘lead’ candidates (in the German terminology ‘Spitzenkandidaten’/’Spitzenkandidatinnen’) deserves special attention. We refer here to candidates for the position of leader of a unique supranational institution responsible for initiating EU policy and legislation.

As is well known, the mandate of the current Juncker Commission will expire at the end of October 2019. Everybody recalls that in 2014, after the direct European elections of May that year, the European Parliament was successful in having Jean-Claude Juncker, the leader of its biggest political group, the European People’s Party (EPP), elected as President of the incoming new Commission. Since then that procedure is known as the ‘Spitzenkandidaten concept’.

The European Parliament, for obvious reasons proud of having set a precedent, intends to repeat that procedure in the context of the 2019 elections. It thus expects that the new Commission President, taking office as from 1 November 2019, will be selected from among those lead candidates.

During their informal meeting of last 23 February, the European Council showed reluctance towards such an approach. Donald Tusk mentioned in his remarks after the informal meeting that there is ‘no automaticity’ in this process. He also recalled that it is the ‘autonomous competence’ of the European Council to propose a candidate, while taking into account the outcome of the European elections.

Indeed, according to the Treaty –Article 18(7) TEU- the European Council is entitled to ‘propose’ a candidate for the position of President of the Commission. On the other hand, the European Parliament has to approve –and formally ‘elect’- the European Council’s candidate by a majority of its members. If the candidate presented by the European Council doesn’t get a majority approval in the European Parliament, it is up to the European Council to come forward with a new candidate.

So, obviously, there are two authorities responsible for the designation of the new Commission’s President, the European Council and the European Parliament. The group of Heads of State and Government reflects the outcome of democratic elections in the Member States. In its turn, the European Parliament consists of members being directly elected by the European citizens themselves.

The one authority cannot impose its position on the other. The European Parliament can only take position once a proposal has been presented by the European Council, whereas the European Council’s candidate can only be selected once he/she has been approved by the European Parliament. So, during the procedure both authorities are mutually dependent on each other.

Given the circumstances, the European Council and the European Parliament should better act in close cooperation. Here clearly lies a responsibility of both Presidents, Donald Tusk and Antonio Tajani, to prepare a ‘way out’ of this serious political problem.

So much is clear, a solution has to be found before the campaign for the 2019 European Parliament elections will take off. Otherwise the citizens may get quite confused: is it for candidate members of the European Parliament that they have to cast their vote, or is there another –crucial- interest involved as well? The continued existence of such confusion can only be detrimental to the degree of democracy at the European level.

Jaap de Zwaan

TEPSA Secretary-General