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.