The Spitzenkandidaten Process: Requiem for a Misguided Eurodream?
R. Daniel Kelemen (Rutgers University)
According to its proponents, the Spitzenkandidaten process was supposed to help democratize the EU. So far, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. While there is evidence the Spitzenkandidaten process has had some beneficial effects for EU democracy, it has also had unexpected, negative consequences. With the Council set to nominate a candidate for the Commission Presidency soon, the fate of the Spitzenkandidaten process hangs in the balance. The process may well be worth saving, but only if it is reconceived and more fully developed.
The Spitzenkandidaten process was part of the European Parliament’s answer to the EU’s supposed democratic deficit – in particular to declining participation in European elections and the critique that the Commission was run by ‘unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats’. In essence, the idea was that by Europarties nominating candidates in advance and demanding that the candidate of the ‘winning’ party become Commission President, the process would enhance public engagement in European elections (in which turnout had been declining for decades) and enhance the legitimacy of the EU by giving voters the sense that European elections mattered for determining the policy direction of the EU.
To be fair, there is already some evidence that the Spitzenkandidaten process increased turnout in the European elections. Also, though the campaigns and debates have not dominated the headlines, they did attract some media attention and generally seemed to be more serious affairs this time around than they were five years ago. However, the Spitzenkandidaten process has also had a perverse effect – increasing the incentives for Europarties to protect national autocrats in their coalitions and thus, counterintuitively, helping to undermine national democracy in some member states.
The root of the problem is the half-baked character of EU-level party politics. As Alberto Alemanno has pointed out, Europarties are not true political parties, but artificial collections of national political parties. Though we have no systematic polling on public knowledge of Europarties, it is surely very low. Europarties never appear on ballots, and they rarely appear in campaign materials. Their Spitzenkandidaten are mostly unknown: for instance a poll taken a month before the European elections in 2019 found that only 26% of Germans knew who Manfred Weber was, even though he himself was a German and came from the most highly institutionalized Europarty – the EPP. If few voters know Europarties or their candidates, surely even fewer know which parties from various member states belong to the same Europarty as the national party they support.
The fact that EU partisan politics is dominated by half-baked Europarties with no clear “brand identities” in the eyes of voters creates perverse incentives. The Spitzenkandidaten process increased the reward for being the largest Europarty and hence increased the (already existing) incentives for Europarties to tolerate undemocratic national member parties and leaders who could deliver seats to them in the European Parliament. In a more fully developed party system, these incentives might be counterbalanced by the fear that allying with autocrats could damage the party’s reputation or “brand”. However, in the EU’s half-baked system of party politics where parties have no clear brands, there is little chance this will happen. Quite simply, there are political benefits for Europarties in allying with autocrats and aspiring autocrats, but few if any political costs to doing so. This helps explain why a party like Germany’s CDU would ally with a far-right, autocratic party like Orbán’s Fidesz at the EU level, even though they would never do so domestically.
Finally, the Spitzenkandidaten process is based on a misconception that the EU is or could become a majoritarian democracy in which the party or coalition of parties that “wins” the European elections governs the EU. In fact, the EU is the archetype of a consenus democracy that divides power among many institutions and parties and relies on them to reach consensus to govern (indeed, Arend Lijphart used it as an exemplar of this model). The Spitzenkandidaten process ignored the role the Treaties gave to the European Council in the appointment of the Commission President, and the fact that partisan composition of the Council may be (as it is today) quite different from that of the Parliament. Also, in suggesting the Commission’s political complexion would be determined by the outcome of the election, the process ignored the fact that because member governments appoint the other Commissioners who serve alongside the President, the Commission will remain a multi-party body that operates based on a broad cross-party consensus.
It remains unclear whether the Spitzenkandidaten process will survive the coming negotiations. But we should also ask whether it deserves to survive – or to be resurrected in the future. For the Spitzenkandidaten process to play the beneficial role its advocates envision, EU level party politics must develop beyond its current half-baked state. First, the poisonous effects of today’s EU party politics will only be overcome once parties and candidates with track records of supporting autocrats – like the EPP and Manfred Weber who have for years supported Orbán’s regime – pay a political price for doing so.Second, Europarties must recognize that apparatchiks who prize the advancement of party interests over European values will fail as Spitzenkandidaten and instead appoint consensus builders who have broad appeal across parties and EU institutions.
R. Daniel Kelemen is Professor of Political Science and Law and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University. Follow him onTwitter @rdanielkelemen