Voices critical of the Spitzenkandidat system grew at the EU leaders’ informal summit held this week in Nagyszeben (Sibiu), Romania. European Council President Donald Tusk is the latest important European leader to express concern about the system.
Tusk has practically turned his back on party agreements by stating that geographical and demographical aspects should be taken into account – perhaps as much as or even more than party decisions – when choosing the leader and members of the next Commission. He made his intentions clear in order to avoid a repeat of 2014 when it took three summits over the course of three months to reach an agreement.
The summit has brought several critical claims about the Spitzenkandidat system to light, putting more pressure on EPP’s favoured candidate, Manfred Weber. As Politico noted earlier, the EU treaties require the Council, acting by a qualified majority, to nominate for Parliament’s approval a Commission president, “taking account of the results of the European Parliament election.”
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French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his opposition to the system on Thursday, saying he thinks it is “not the right approach” and that he “would not feel bound by nationality.”
Others also joined him, including Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel: “Ask my voters — they have no clue who’s the spitzenkandidat.” Bettel added that the process “was a mistake from the beginning” and claimed it cannot function without proper transnational lists. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė told reporters that the process is “a little bit out of democratic procedures and treaties.”
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As expected, Angela Merkel stood by Weber once again: “I support Manfred Weber, to make this very clear.” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also defended the current system, claiming that any changes would run the risk of “being undemocratic.” Weber himself defended the process and insisted that “ignoring Spitzenkandidaten would harm EU democracy.”
The Spitzenkandidat system
The German term refers to the lead candidate of a party. The European party groups came up with the idea of naming a spitzenkandidat (a person whom the particular party group supports for the presidency of the European Commission) to make the vote more democratic. This way, unlike in the past, people are aware of who they are really voting for when casting a vote for one of the local parties. This means that prior to the start of the European Election campaign, each party at the European level can publicly announce their transnational spitzenkandidats, informally making them the face of their election bid. The spitzenkandidat able to secure a majority governing coalition in the European Parliament (353 MEPs) will become European Commission President if approved by the European Council. The new system came into effect right before the 2014 EP elections. Traditionally, no party group can win the EP election on its own. Therefore, they are forced to form a coalition in the European Parliament. The win is never guaranteed – not even for the spitzenkandidat of the party group with the most seats – as an 'outsider' could be named following the series of negotiations. Prior to the 2019 EP elections, party groups took their time choosing a spitzenkandidat via staged procedures. However, it seems this does not guarantee any of them the presidency.
Weber is under pressure for a number of reasons, one being Viktor Orbán’s recent announcement. The PM stated that he would no longer be supporting Weber due to comments the politician made on German TV. To top it all off, rumors have spread that former EPP Vice-President Michel Barnier might run for the position.
In the featured photo: Donald Tusk meeting Viktor Orbán during the EU summit in Nagyszeben. Photo by Balázs Szecsődi/PM’s Press Office