The Spitzenkandidaten Exercise One Year Later – The Unsung Hero

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A year has gone by since the last elections to the European Parliament. One significant innovation in those elections was the Spitzenkandidaten exercise.

At the recent fifth edition of the ‘State of the Union’ organized by the European University Institute I conducted a public interview with Vice President of the European Commission Franz Timmermans.

Vice President Timmermans and I reached the point where we touched on that perennial topic of the still existing deficiencies of European democracy, resulting, inter alia, in widespread indifference as expressed in the low turnout to the last European elections – 2014 scored the lowest turnout ever.

Here is an edited transcript from the interview.

Weiler:  […]  Part of the problem is that when people go and vote for  the European Parliament, they are not really being offered a real political choice (the way, for example, yesterday they were offered in the United Kingdom – Labour or Conservative.), neither as regards the policies that will be pursued nor as regards who will govern them. So the delicate question is whether the Union in its processes needs to become overtly more political? Do you think the bold, even though limited, experiment of the last elections to the European Parliament with the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, who delivered here in this space [the Salone dei cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio] one of the televised debates, should be pursued and perhaps deepened as one of the ways of addressing that problem of citizen disengagement?

Timmermans:  Yes, first of all … the core of the problem also refers to one of my favourite authors, Hannah Arendt, who … actually, if you bring back the essence of some of her writings [says] ‘ It is not the anger of the minorities that hates us, it is the indifference of the majority that makes things difficult’: and here we have a problem at the European level because institutions that are made to represent the people through direct democracy, or like the Commission through other means, are very often very, very far removed from the political perceptions of the citizens. There is no (not yet) European ‘demos’, European political focal point, and we will need the engagement at the national level to make sure that we will bring people closer to what is European decision-making; so the odd contradiction between … there are …. there is the ‘supernational’ level and there is the national level, and what we are doing is trying to take away from one, or trying to resist taking it away from one … We are in this together! The only way forward is for national governments and leaders to take the responsibility for the European project, and stop blaming Europe for everything that goes wrong and taking credit for everything that goes right; and we at the European level should indeed, I think, be more focused towards making our institutions more political.

I was myself sceptical of the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ idea, right?  I criticized it publicly several times and I am happy to admit it here today… I was wrong! Because of the Spitzenkandidaten idea, we now have a President of the Commission who is not appointed by consensus in the European Council, but who was appointed and elected by the European Parliament, by a political process. The European Council had to accept that political process; it makes the President of the European Commission far more independent than I have seen in the past. And Jean-Claude Juncker is a political leader who takes this very seriously indeed, and you can see this in the dynamic between the Commission and the European Parliament, between the Commission and the European Council … Let me just refer to what Jean-Claude said about migration;  this was not consensual language as far as the European Council is concerned.  He took his position in a political way; he took his leadership role in a very straightforward way and gave us a leadership role in the migration debate.

Weiler: Ladies and gentlemen, it is not every day that you sit next to a politician who is willing to say ‘I was wrong!’

The jury is still out on the importance – also for the future – of that bold exercise, though in my eyes it was a critical first step towards a more political Union, indispensable for a more democratic Europe. Democracy without meaningful choice, politics without ‘politics’ – are both empty.

It is thus appropriate to recall the unsung hero of this exercise, Martin Schulz, the current President of the European Parliament. The idea of a Spitzenkandidaten-type exercise had been canvassed here and there over the years. But as the Italians say, Nove parlano, uno fa! Nine talk, one does! It was the indefatigable effort, commitment, energy and political determination by Martin Schulz which more than any other single factor brought this development about. All of us, at least those who believe it was a positive development (to which we may now add Frans Timmermans) owe him a debt of thanks. The full story is told in the recent book, The Making of a European President, by Julian Priestley and Nereo Peñalver García. Well worth your time to read.

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Jakob Cornides says

September 7, 2015

As someone who actually works at the European Commission, I beg to differ.

It is one question whether the Commission should become more politicised and less technocratic, and –supposing it should be more "political" - it is yet another question whether Martin Schulz' "Spitzenkandidaten" idea really has the potential to provide the Commission with a better political legitimacy. I doubt both.

First and foremost, I find it wholly inappropriate to offer eulogies to the "unsung hero" Martin Schulz, when in reality the only reason for his Spitzenkandidaten idea was his personal ambition.

As a current EP President, Martin Schulz may be quite well-known to observers of EU politics in the Brussels/Strasbourg bulb, but he is actually not well-known in Germany (where the only elected office he ever held was that of mayor in a small town somewhere near Aachen), nor does he enjoy a great popularity there. And if he is neither well-known nor popular in Germany, one can imagine his popularity in other countries. Even in Austria, where we have a common language with Germany, the proverbial man on the street would probably not know who Martin Schulz is, nor would a man like he, with his very German style have a great appeal to an Austrian electorate. (It was quite unsurprising that during last year's campaign the Austrian Social Democrats did not put Schulz' face on any of their posters, nor did they use the argument that a vote for them would help Schulz in winning the Commission Presidency…. they knew perfectly well that this was not an argument that would sway any undecided voter.) And if this is the situation in Austria, you can imagine how it is in non-German-speaking countries.

The reason for Schulz to promote the Spitzenkandidaten idea was that he himself wanted to be the S&D Spitzenkandidat. With his term as EP President coming to an end, he thought that Commission President was a suitable next step for himself, and he knew that the Spitzenkandidaten project was the only possible way for him to achieve this goal. Unknown and hardly popular among the broader public, he nevertheless was in full control of the EP's S&D group, knowing all the little tricks and trade-offs that were necessary to get himself elected as the Spitzenkandidat – not by European Party leaders, but simply by the S&D group. And having secured this position for himself, he had a fairly good hope that S&D might get slightly more seats than the EPP, which would have placed him in the pole position.

As we know now, this second part of his plan didn't quite work out. But never mind, Schulz managed to get the best out of it for himself, by suddenly arguing (a position he had NOT taken BEFORE the elections!) that the candidate of the largest group (i.e., Juncker, the EPP Spitzenkandidat) should not automatically be the next Commission President, but instead needed to be "elected" by the Parliament, and that the S&D group, in exchange for supporting Juncker, should get the post of EP President …. for Martin Schulz. (And in addition, the S&D ven managed to get the post of "High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy" for Federica Mogherini, and the post of "Super-Commission-Vice-President" for Frans Timmermans himself - not at all bad, given their rather mediocre election result.)

All this was in contradiction to existing EC Treaty law.
Why did the EPP, and in particular Angela Merkel, accept this? Probably for two reasons.

First, they had no project of their own, so that, when Schulz and his S&D group came forward with the Spitzenkandidaten idea, they had no alternative to offer. This was particularly inconvenient, because there was a loud and persistent drumbeating on the side of some (uninformed, yet idealistic) media how the Spitzenkandidaten idea would at last "democratize" the EU. Also, the EPP had not really made up their mind whom they wanted to appoint as Commission President, given that they expected the necessity to decide that question to arise much later. Juncker was probably not the candidate they would have chosen at that stage – but there was no one else around – at it seems that Angela Merkel hoped that she could anyway replace him with a man of her own choice at a later stage.

As we know now, things have turned out differently. The elections resulted in an awkward outcome in which Juncker won although he was not a candidate (neither in Luxembourg, nor in any other country; in the UK there even was no EPP candidate running…).

With all due respect, I doubt that either of the two candidates, Schulz and Juncker (or the candidates of the smaller groups, which included Verhofstadt and Tsipras) really had a major influence on the election outcome. Portuguese or Finnish voters did not vote pro-Schulz or pro-Juncker, but they voted – as they had always done – on the basis of a mainly national outlook on EU politics, or even with no consideration of EU politics at all (i.e., to express their support for, or discontent over, their respective domestic governments).

No doubt, the Spitzenkandidaten idea proved, in a certain sense, attractive also for other parliamentary groups besides the S&D, because it aggrandizes their role beyond what is foreseen in the Treaty. This is why ultimately the EPP group defended Juncker's candidature against attempts by Merkel and other national leaders to find the new Commission President in a more "traditional" way. But if an idea is attractive for MEPs, this does not necessarily mean that it is attractive for the electorate.

Mr. Timmermans is right (or rather, he was right) in saying that the problem is that there still is no European "demos", and no genuinely European political debate. But that would be the first pre-condition for a democratically convincing election campaign. Outside the Brussels bulb, politicians like Juncker, Verhofstadt, or Schulz are simply too little known and too little popular to draw much attention and support. The decline in participation proves that point.

Following the crisis situations Europe is currently facing (i.e., Greek debt and Syrian migrants), we currently seem to have some politicians that are sufficiently visible Europe-wide to be plausible Spitzenkandidaten for a truly European election: Angela Merkel, Alexis Tsipras, and maybe Viktor Orban. But they all are heads of their respective countries' governments, and probably would not dream to run as candidates for Commission President.

Realistically, voters will continue to view EU elections through their national lenses. Any attempt to democratize the EU, however well-intended, must take this into account. Maybe a good intermediate solution would be for each Member State to elect its own Commissioner in a democratic election? Then at least people could vote for/against candidates whom they know and whose language they speak. But it remains to be discussed what that would mean for the Commission's ability to work as a college.