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September 19, 2018

Attacks weaken legitimacy of spitzenkandidat model

Pity prospective voters in next year’s European election trying to make sense of the spitzenkandidat process, sold to them last time round as a beautiful democratic advance. As Europe’s political forces gear up for a tough campaign season with mainstream parties battling anti-migration populists, one obscure politician after the other is emerging to claim their party’s nomination for the succession of Jean Claude Juncker. First it was Manfred Weber bobbing up for the EPP. Then the European socialists saw Maros Sefcovic and Christian Kern surface this week. To know who they are, one had better be either an Austrian working in Brussels or gifted with a prodigious memory. Sefcovic is the Slovak vice-president of the European commission, in charge of energy and climate. Kern is Sebastian Kurz’s predecessor as Austrian chancellor - a member of the elite club of former national leaders but in office for only a year and half, too little to be more than a blip in Europe’s political consciousness.

Of all the problems besetting the spitzenkandidat process, we believe it to be the smaller one that all candidates so far are virtually unknown outside of Brussels or their home country. After all, some US Presidents start the campaign for their party’s nomination as virtual mystery men. Few other than policy wonks knew Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. We find it far more damaging that the whole process, conceived and announced as a symbol of a more democratic Europe, is increasingly attacked as undemocratic and irredeemably flawed by well-respected European actors. The trouble is that these critics undoubtedly have a point.

The spitzenkandidat model is supposed to propel the nominee of the European parliament’s largest political group to the presidency of the European commission, because it makes him or her the natural candidate for governments to choose and Parlament to vote on. It is likely that, because of the distribution of seats in the next EP, this model will once more favour the candidate of the EPP, with the socialist nominee as a potential contender for another top EU job as a consolation prize. However, it is as good as certain that political groups other than the EPP and the social democrats will see their weight grow in the next Parliament, perhaps substantially. This makes the spitzenkandidat model look increasingly like a shady stitch-up favouring the EPP first, and the social democrats second. 

The latest broadside came from Margrethe Vestager,herself  widely seen as a serious contender to succeed Juncker. The EU’s competition czar, a Danish liberal, is well-respected in Brussels. Yesterday, she savaged the spitzenkandidat process as an exercise in fake democracy. Her attack, which echoes criticisms of Emmanuel Macron and Guy Verhofstadt, adds to the feeling that the spitzenkandidat idea is bleeding legitimacy even as it gets under way for 2019. All this is casting a shadow on the European election as a whole, and on the choice of the next Commission president in particular. Advocates of more European democracy now find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Abandon the spitzenkandidat, and voters must conclude that what was presented as a democratic advance has failed, or is being taken back from them anyway. Stick to it, and you find yourself defending a model rapidly losing credibility. So far, we see no politician who has found the words or the strategy to show a way out of this damaging conundrum.

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September 19, 2018

A very German farce

Angela Merkel is certainly well versed in the art of political compromise. Yesterday’s agreed solution in the Maaßen affair has on one level a touch of political genius, but on another level it could backfire politically for all the parties concerned. Hans-Georg Maaßen, president of the federal office for the protection of the constitution, had come under pressure over some rather silly remarks in the context of the recent riots by the far-right in eastern Germany. The SPD wanted his scalp. Horst Seehofer, CSU chief and interior minister, lined up behind Maaßen. The political solution to the crisis is for him to leave his current job and to become deputy interior minister. So everybody wins, right? Maaßen gets the promotion of his life; Seehofer’s stubbornness has once again paid off; the SPD can claim that Maaßen is no longer in his old job; and Merkel has kept her fragile coalition together until the next crisis.

Readers will suspect that it is probably not quite so simple. Immigration has become to Germany what Europe has been to the UK - a permanent issue that ends up radicalising both sides in the debate, and society in general. It is hard to see how this very German farce could fail to benefit the AfD, which has steadfastly supported Maaßen. We also noted yesterday’s political story in Bild which questioned the fairness of a political manoeuvre to fire the man who protects all of us from terrorism. 

We noted a comment in FAZ this morning by Berthold Kohler, who notes that the Merkel administration goes from one crisis to the next, and expends ever more energy to tame the innate centrifugal tendencies of the coalition. What keeps the coalition together is a joint fear of the AfD.

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