Who wants to be the next president?


Picture of Nereo Peñalver García
Nereo Peñalver García

European Parliament official and visiting Professor at the College of Europe

Nereo Peñalver García is a European Parliament official, a visiting Professor at the College of Europe and the co-author, together with Sir Julian Priestley, of the book “The making of a European President” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) on the first pan-European Presidential campaign. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the European Parliament.

With one year to go before the 2019 European elections, the race to become the next EU Commission President is on. With key responsibilities such as leading the College of Commissioners; setting, together with the College, the European Union’s policy agenda; and representing the EU abroad, the candidate must have previous experience as prime minister or other high-ranking minister with a strategic vision and a strong command of English ‒ and preferably other languages. These are the unwritten pre-requisites to be a contender in the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process.

The aim of this institutional innovation, used for the first time in the 2014 elections, was to bring the EU closer to its citizens to increase the Union’s democratic legitimacy. However, at a time when this is probably more necessary than ever before, there is no guarantee that the Spitzenkandidaten process will be used again in 2019.

The next European elections will be key to consolidate this process and make it irreversible. It is time to choose between having a real pan-European campaign and going backwards and choosing the President behind closed doors. In the run up to the 2019 elections, there is a real opportunity to use the Spitzenkandidaten process to give the EU new momentum.

There is no guarantee that the Spitzenkandidaten process will be used again in 2019

The success of the new process in 2014 was largely due to the existence of a blood pact between the majority of political groups in the Parliament: they would only elect a Commission President that had run as a Spitzenkandidat and could gather the support of a majority in Parliament. Group leaders threatened to reject any other candidate.

On 23 February 2018, European Council President Donald Tusk announced that “there is no automaticity in the process” and the “European Council cannot guarantee in advance that it will propose one of the lead candidates for President of the Commission.” Political groups in the European Parliament should thus stick together before and after the elections to make sure the Spitzenkandidaten process prevails.

Ahead of the electoral campaign, European political parties should organise US-style open primaries amongst the contenders. National political parties have been moving along these lines for the selection of their candidates for national heads of government, often with spectacular success in terms of re-engaging with voters.

The 2014 campaign was challenging, as candidates only had six weeks to convince almost 400 million voters and campaign in 28 member states with different political cultures and languages. For the upcoming elections, the primaries would need to start in autumn 2018, as getting any non-recognised candidate to be chosen by the electorate takes time. A calendar for primaries should be established, bringing the various Spitzenkandidaten to all EU member states and subjecting them to media attention during the selection process. A combination of caucuses, hustings and primaries could spur interest in the EU elections amongst media and citizens.

Once elected, the following measures could be taken to continue increasing the visibility of the Spitzenkandidaten during the campaign:

First, include the candidate’s name at the top of the ballot paper, alongside the European parties affiliated to his/her respective political family. This would help establish a more visible link between national and European parties.

Secondly, additional broadcasting time in national media should be given to the Spitzenkandidaten, on top of the time attributed to candidates running for MEPs, when they visit an EU member state. In some member states the electoral law would need to be amended to make these two suggestions possible.

Thirdly, national broadcasters should organise debates in main television channels between the Spitzenkandidaten. The necessary means for interpreting the discussions should be ensured, so that the candidates can speak in their native language, in case they don’t master the local language.

Finally, there is a symbolic measure that could help draw attention to the elections and create a sense of common destiny: a common voting day across the EU, with polling stations closing at the same time. This would pave the way for the emergence of a common EU demos.
One of the main challenges for the 2019 elections will be bringing national parties on board. Ownership of the campaign by these parties will be of utmost importance in order to ensure their cooperation and the move from second-order elections focusing on national issues to first-order elections, where citizens realise that their choices at EU level matter.

European political parties should organise US-style open primaries amongst the contenders

A way to convince national parties of the added value of a pan-European campaign would be the prospect of having additional resources to relay their message. European political parties ran the 2014 campaign with a small number of motivated party advisors working around the clock. But this is not enough for a pan-European campaign. Having more staff would allow campaigners to reach out to target groups and focus on ‘get out the vote strategies’ that are impossible with just a handful of advisors. To increase the overall resources available for a Europe-wide campaign, the European Parliament could study the possibility of changing the existing rules to allow political group advisors to campaign at EU level for their Spitzenkandidat.

The main success story of the 2014 elections was probably the launch of the idea of common candidates. The genie is, now, out of the bottle. But the Spitzenkandidaten is a process, not a miracle. And as it is the case with any process, we will have to keep working on its improvement. The vitality of the process will determine the success of the 2019 elections. It is time to move up a gear.

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