The Rise of the Spitzenkandidat

by Andrew Stuttaford

 EUObserver notices that the EU parliament may be in the process of pulling off a remarkable “institutional coup”.

But first some background from the Financial Times:

 Over the past decade, English has gradually replaced French as the EU’s lingua franca. But in recent weeks the word most often on EU officials’ lips has been German: Spitzenkandidat.

 The word – literally “top candidate”, or party-list leader – first entered the European lexicon in 2013 after the centre-left Party of European Socialists committed itself to naming a Spitzenkandidat for May’s EU parliamentary election who would become the party’s choice for the EU’s most high-profile job: European Commission president. The idea is to use the European parliamentary elections to select the next president of the European Commission when José Manuel Barroso’s term finishes in October and thereby give more democratic legitimacy to the bloc’s executive arm.

 New [Lisbon] treaty provisions mean EU leaders have to “take into account” the election results when selecting the commission president. But the leaders are divided over whether this means giving the job to a leading parliamentary candidate, adding huge uncertainty to the process of choosing who will run the bloc’s crucial executive arm.

Up until now, the job of picking the president has been the prerogative of the governments of the different member-states. Smoke-filled rooms (or their contemporary equivalent) and all that, but at least this approach kept alive, however tenuously, a direct connection with the national democratic process. The governments that made the decision were accountable to their national electorates. The EU parliament, by contrast, is a travesty of democracy, a representative body for a European ‘nation’ that does not exist. Bossy, self-important and corrupt, it’s greedy for power.

EUObserver explains:

[T]he European Parliament is in the process of staging a rather successful coup.

It has talked itself, and the rest of us, into a process that is not actually written in the treaty. That is that each political party puts forward a candidate to be commission president. And that person should become head of the EU executive if their political family win the most votes in the 22-25 May election.

…While some EU leaders peered into the treaty and saw only that they must take the result of the elections “into account” when choosing the person for the job, MEPs saw Article 17 bis.

And they set about making turning this expansive interpretation into a reality…. If the candidates run around Europe telling people that they are actual contenders, and participating in political debates on TV (even if they are only webstreamed or shown on lesser-known channels), they create a truth of sorts.

And from a rather wobbly can’t-distinguish-one-from-the-other they are gradually emerging with policies and debating styles. And they are naturally keen to stress the democratic nature of it all.

There more than a point or two of discussion on whether voters are aware of this ‘democracy’ and indeed whether they consider the EU institutions at all when casting their ’second order’ ‘punish-the-home-government’ vote.

But the upshot of it is that EU leaders- after paying so much lipservice on the need for the EU to be democratically legitimate – will be hard put not to choose one of these candidates….

The leading candidates are, on the center-right, a former Luxemburg prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, a less than Churchillian figure with, reportedly, a somewhat Churchillian fondness for the bottle, and, on the left, the German social democrat Martin Schulz, an irascible and unpleasant authoritarian who believes that euroskeptics are “mentally weak”. Lagging behind those two is the Liberal, Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium, a centrist who stands out only for the fanaticism of his euro-federalism, no small achievement in this company.

Meanwhile, the most recent results from EU’s own Eurobarometer show that the EU is trusted by less than one-third of its citizens. 

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