The Spitzenkandidat. 2014 – ?: the European Commission president in 10 years of European elections

Photo by European Parliament from EU/CC BY 2.0

By Belotti Matteo and Giuliani Gaia

On the edge of next European Parliament’s elections in June, the Pandora’s Box has been opened. The offstage political debate is conveyed through whispers around the figure of the Spitzenkandidat, and they are not good tidings. It is time to unveil Ursula von der Leyen’s sudden rise in the last five years and her possible downfall in the coming electoral turnouts.

The 2014 and 2019 European elections

The practice of selecting the Spitzenkandidat for European Commission’s (EC) president has been characterising European Parties’ activity since its debut in 2014, when Jean-Claude Juncker was nominated as head of the Commission. Juncker, the lead candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), was overwhelmingly supported by the European Council, obtaining the approval of 26 out of 28 heads of state and government, and by the European Parliament (EP), where he got the support of a strong majority of 422 MEPs.

Given the success of this procedure, it was implemented again in 2019, but with significantly different results. Indeed, as the European Parliament’s major party was again the EPP, its leading candidate – Manfred Weber – didn’t pass the European Council’s examination, regarded as not experienced enough by EU national leaders. To this extent, the French President Emmanuel Macron was explicitly opposed to the procedure, favouring a direct nomination of an individual coveted by the majority of the assembly. Such a view was – and still is – professed by the Hungarian PM Orbán, forming an improbable “axis” with the Président. On the other hand, former chancellor Angela Merkel’s words about Weber’s torpedoing were clear about the fact that it cannot happen again to have a lead candidate portrayed since the beginning as “unsuitable”. Consequently, the European Council provided the EP with a brand-new personality that, once more coming from the EPP, happened to be Ursula von der Leyen. This, for sure, came as a surprise, especially for the EP, but why was she able to reach such a powerful position?

Ursula von der Leyen’s charming – and subtle – ascent 

As relevant names in European politics argued, she was friends more with Angela Merkel than with the party core, not showing off a hard support by the EPP. The former Germany’s Defence Minister received 383 positive votes in the EP, just 9 over the number that traces the absolute majority (374). Those numbers didn’t come only from the EPP. As a matter of fact, she counted on 290 heads coming mostly from the EPP and Renew. The S&D Group did not vote as a bloc, resulting in other support for von der Leyen. Furthermore, what’s peculiar about her nomination is the decisive role played by Non-Inscrit MEPs, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, that are now known for their unreliable position. After 5 years of her leading role, what are the prospects?

Copyright: © European Union 2022 by Daina Le Lardic- Source : EP

Today, even more than five years ago, the EC’s president is playing on the borderline with her candidacy that is putting her “under fire“, even if from a privileged position. Actually, it is interesting to underline that of 737 EPP’s delegates who could have voted at the party congress in Bucharest, just 499 did with 400 “yes” to von der Leyen, giving the impression that only those who didn’t have doubts expressed their preference. This internal fragmentation in the party, that led to a NOAHno other alternatives here – choice, comes for the first time after ten years in the traditional leading political group in the EP, and it could cost von der Leyen’s head.

As for her “iron” governance of the EC, she has been collecting multiple criticisms. For example, her periodic missteps, the ongoing issue that she has with the EP about the rule of law and the recent concerns expressed by her own commissioners on Pieper’s appointment. Von der Leyen is to search for consensus in the EP, and this may force her to be more flexible, even to renegotiate her policies. Furthermore, not having Angela Merkel on her side anymore, she has to face her party members’ disapproval by seeking support from possible coalition parties, such as Renew, as she did five years ago. However, the times are changing, and the possible alliances are becoming more and more blurred. 

Which is the pattern now?

Germany and France aren’t actually at their best, facing internal dissent and an economic crisis. Moreover, our Commission president knows well that Germany is not headed by her former chief – even though Scholz has expressed his commitment to back up a second von der Leyen – and the SPD is notoriously not a fan of hers. Macron, on the other hand, has been trying to achieve the prestige – and influence – that Merkel used to have, and if he succeeds, the European Council won’t nominate an EC president that isn’t supported by Renew. This is why von der Leyen has been looking for backup from other European leaders, even up to the far-right Italian PM, Giorgia Meloni.

Copyright: © European Union 2022 by Daina Le Lardic- Source : EP

Unfortunately for her, von der Leyen might have to face enemies among promising MEPs too, such as Valerie Hayer from Renew, who clearly stated “I won’t rule out voting for her again, I won’t rule out not voting for her again”. The liberals are in the majority against her return to the highest chair of the EC, condemning her Green Deal and her collaboration with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Without her chancellor back home supporting her in the European Council, nor with the significant endorsement that Renew represented five years ago, who’s gonna Ursula von der Leyen look at? Is the far-right a plausible option to “survive”? 

Is history repeating itself again?

Without internal party support and the approval of the other Member States, we wonder how likely von der Leyen is to take home a second mandate. Treaty rules speak loud and clear, the EC’s president appointment is a joint exercise of the European Council and the EP (art. 17.7 TEU), and neither of them possibly represents a secured harbour for a captain with an empty vessel. Given the acknowledged progressive weakening of the two major European parties, the EPP and the Socialists & Democrats, and the threatening rise of far-right coalitions throughout Europe, next elections are anything but easy to forecast

The second von der Leyen is not to be taken for granted anymore. Rather, bearing in mind the polls, which favour the EPP as the granted winner in June, the former German minister might encounter a tough right-wing opposition in the EP preventing her from reaching the majority. So, the European Council is likely to reiterate the 2019 scheme, checkmating von der Leyen, potentially regarded as “unsuitable since the beginning”, and selecting another name from the EPP. Consequently, the Spitzenkandidat procedure would be put aside.

Nonetheless, is the European Council’s interference turning out in dystopian scenarios, or is it just “sticking to the TEU”?

The lead candidate nomination comes from an EP’s conception, aiming to secure a more transparent procedure for the EC’s presidential election. Furthermore, the attempt to put the process upon stone derives from the institutional power game. On one hand, the European Council moves in a context where national interests are at stake, whereas the EP is seeking to have a stronger voice – insofar as citizens’ institution – in the EU by increasing its prerogatives. Martin Schulz, former EP’s president and among the inventors of the Spitzenkandidat figure, claimed that, even though von der Leyen did not run as lead candidate in 2019, she was handpicked by the European leaders behind closed doors. Nonetheless, the restraint shown by European leaders, headed by Orbán since 2014, is a sign of resistance by Member States to the transfer of power, stating the ‘final word’ to the EC’s presidency nomination. 

All things considered, the Spitzenkandidat solution, since its debut in 2014, has been aiming to become a customary rule in accordance with EP’s willingness. June’s elections may validate this hypothesis, or bury it for good. Since it already didn’t work in 2019, and the actual leading candidate of the most prominent European party doesn’t have the support she shall have, the practice may not work once again. The EP is battling against Member States’ privileges, and the consequences will lead to different scenarios for the European integration process. Presently, the main issue is whether the weakness in von der Leyen’s run for presidency will be exploited by the European national leaders to put forward another – more favourable – name for the EC. Basically, if the leading candidate doesn’t respect European Council’s expectations even this time, what could happen is that, other than promoting a leading figure, European parties could end up nominating “scapE(U)-goting” candidates, woefully becoming preys of the ongoing battle between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism in the EU.

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