Ursula and the eurosceptic Spitzenkandidat: Which role will the Spitzenkandidat process play in choosing the president of the EU?

Copyright: © European Union 2024  by Eric Vidal – Source : EP

By Clara Cecilie Krenz Ranum

When citizens of the EU cast their ballots at the beginning of June for the European Parliament election 2024, they are not just voting for their preferred party group or MEP, but their vote will also contribute to the Spitzenkandidat process. The Spitzenkandidat process can end up having minimal impact on the choice of Commission President and has therefore been a controversial process, since its introduction in 2014, so what is it? Will it play a role in choosing the next Commission Executive?

Understanding the Spitzenkandidat Process

The Spitzenkandidat process is an attempt to ensure that the European Parliament also has a say in deciding who will be the president of the commission. 

Until 2014, traditionally it was the heads of state in the Council who would nominate candidates for the executive job. The introduction of the Spitzenkandidat process is a way of democratising the election of the commission president by giving the European Political Parties the ability to choose a lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat. Each European Party chooses at least one Spitzenkandidat they believe should be the president of the commission. The party group that gets the most seats in the EP election gets to present their Spitzenkandidat to the Council. The Spitzenkandidat process was also an attempt to increase voter turnout in the EP elections. The controversial aspect of this process is that the council must consider the Spitzenkandidat, but it is not obliged to approve it. In Article 17(7) of the EU treaty law on the provisions of the institutions, the council shall be “taking into account the elections of the European Parliament”. This means that the council can simply reject the Spitzenkandidat in favour of one of their preferred nominees. If the Council chooses a non-Spitzenkandidat, the democratic legitimacy of the process fades away, and the decision will continue to be intergovernmental. 

Are the europarties setting themselves up for failure again?

The Spitzenkandidat process worked in 2014 when Jean-Claude Juncker was elected as president of the commission as a result of being the Spitzenkandidat of EPP (European People’s Party). The success of the Spitzenkandidat system did not repeat itself in 2019, when Ursula Von der Leyen was elected without being a Spitzenkandidat. In 2019,EPP had a majority and their Spitzenkandidat was Manfred Weber, but Weber was rejected by the Council, partly due to the lack of executive experience. When discussing the Spitzenkandidat system and its deficiencies, it has also been pointed out that the EP also bears a part of the responsibility for choosing an inexperienced Spitzenkandidat. Do the 2024 Spitzenkandidaten look promising? 

Ursula and the Eurosceptic Spitzenkandidat 

This year, the odds that the next president of the commission will be a Spitzenkandidat seem reasonable. When looking at the Europe Elects statistics from February 2024, EPP will remain the biggest party group in the EP. EPP is expected to lose one seat, going from 182 seats in the 2019 election to 181, according to the poll. Ursula Von der Leyen is running for another term as President of the Commission, as the Spitzenkandidat of the EPP party group. This makes it likely that the Spitzenkandidat process might again work in practice, in the case that Von der Leyen gets re-elected.

Party group ID (Identity and Democracy) gained 19 seats in the latest poll, an increase from 73 to 92 seats. If the polls are right, ID will become the third biggest party group, thereby making their Spitzenkandidat of greater interest. ID has chosen Danish MEP Anders Vistisen, a member of the national conservative Danish People’s Party. Anders Vistisen is an interesting Spitzenkandidat, because he belongs to a group of the most far-right eurosceptic MEPs, making him the only Spitzenkandidat who wants his member state to leave the EU. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that Vistisen would actually be considered by both the EP and the Council for the role since he is against the EU. Last year at an EP hearing, Vistisen was accused of hate speech by fellow MEPs after he linked rape and murder in Europe with Islam.

Does the Spitzenkandidat process contribute to the democratisation of the EU?

Yes, in theory, but it must work in practice, like it did in 2014. If the Spitzenkandidat process proves to be successful, then it can be seen as a democratic improvement. It gives more power to the average European voter because their vote will now also impact who holds power in the executive branch and gives democratic legitimacy to the president of the Commission. The Spitzenkandidat process also improves the transparency of the process of appointing the presidential candidates, although the council will still make their decision behind closed doors. 

On the contrary, it can be argued that the Spitzenkandidat Process in its current form does not contribute to the democratisation of the EU. The main criticism is that as long as the council can reject the Spitzenkandidat, the concept is all just a part of the “EU theatre“, as ID party chief has described it.

Copyright: © European Union 2024  by Eric Vidal – Source : EP

Anders Vistisen has expressed that he does not believe he has a chance of winning, and that his nomination should only be seen as an act of protest to expose the hypocrisy of the system. Translated by the author of this article, Vistisen told Danish media: “If ID becomes the biggest group after the election, will they vote for Anders Vistisen from Denmark as President of the Commission? I think not at all”. Vistisen draws attention to what he perceives as a “problematic” treatment of the right- wing in the EU, where the “automatic reaction is to exclude the right wing”. 

Ursula Von der Leyen delivered her speech at the European Parliament Congress on March 7th, where she expressed her visions for the future of the EU. Her message was clear: “Peaceful and united Europe is being challenged like never before by populists, nationalists, and demagogues, whether it’s the far-right or the far-left”. The strong rhetoric seems to further strengthen the divide between the two candidates’ party groups EPP and ID. She earlier stated that “those who are defending democracy against the Eurosceptics,(…)”, are the ones she wants to work with. VDL and Vistisen’s statements are the essence of the divide. VDL talks about Eurosceptics as undemocratic and Vistisen views the exclusion of Eurosceptic MEPs as undemocratic and the Spitzenkandidat process as nothing more than a show. During times when ID is likely to become the third biggest party group, simply dismissing the eurosceptic forces may not be a sustainable strategy in the long run. 

An unknown process for many voters

When trying to understand how and if the Spitzenkandidat process will impact the choice of Commission President, it’s important to emphasise that the system has only been used twice. This makes it difficult to predict its influence in future elections. When discussing the democratic impact of the Spitzenkandidat process, it should be considered that it is not commonly known among voters. This lack of awareness may hinder its ability to enhance democratic legitimacy. Indeed, if the average voter remains unaware of the system, its potential to bolster democratic legitimacy may be compromised, and it will remain a political discussion at the elite level.

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