A Guide to the Race to Head the European Commission
(Bloomberg) -- A political ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week fired the starting gun in the contest to lead the European Commission as of November 2019. In announcing his bid on Wednesday to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker atop the European Union’s executive arm, Manfred Weber enters a process that has hardly been tested.
Here is an overview of the system, which is called “Spitzenkandidat” for the German term for lead candidate.
What is the Spitzenkandidat process?
It’s an EU effort to replicate national parliamentary democracy. Europe’s main political parties nominate candidates for president of the Brussels-based commission. The parties with the best results in elections to the European Parliament, which oversees the commission, lay claim to its leadership. The whole process is non-binding.
How long has the system been used?
It was deployed for the first time in the run-up to the last EU Parliament elections in 2014. At the time, the biggest European political party, the Christian Democrats, picked Juncker as its Spitzenkandidat. Juncker ran against contenders from several other parties and secured the top commission job after the Christian Democrats retained their ranking as the EU Parliament’s biggest faction.
What are the hurdles?
Two main political obstacles exist for Spitzenkandidaten -- one inside the EU Parliament and the other within the grouping of national leaders known as the European Council. The contender for commission chief must be able to muster the support of a majority of members in the Parliament, where no party has more than 30 percent of the seats. This puts a premium on coalition building. The candidate must also be endorsed by a majority of the EU’s national government leaders, who have traditionally played the key role in deciding on the commission president (and who for the past almost quarter century have shown a preference for filling the post with somebody from among their own ranks).
What are the benefits?
The Spitzenkandidat process helps address concerns about a “democratic deficit” in the EU by strengthening the link between the bloc’s chief executive and voters. It also bolsters ties between the commission and the EU Parliament, facilitating legislative work as a whole during the five-year terms of both bodies.
What are the risks?
By making the selection of the commission head more dependent on EU parties and voters and less reliant on prime ministers, chancellors and presidents, the Spitzenkandidat process adds unpredictability to governance of the bloc. This is especially true in a period of insurgent populist forces. Wary of losing too much control over European decision-making, the EU’s national leaders have said there will be no automatic link between the Spitzenkandidat experiment and the choice of the next commission chief.
What is the state of play in the Spitzenkandidat race?
With the next EU Parliament elections due in May 2019, Europe’s main parties aim in the coming weeks and months to pick their nominees for Spitzenkandidat after internal competitions or at least vetting. At this stage, more people are rumored to be interested in joining the race than have announced bids. Weber so far is the only official candidate for the Christian Democrats, also known as the European People’s Party. A European Commission vice president from Slovakia, Maros Sefcovic, has thrown his hat into the Socialist ring. The EU’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager of Denmark, is widely considered to be preparing to run for the Liberals.
Are any special factors at play?
Yes -- a new factor and a longstanding one. Last year’s election of French President Emmanuel Macron put a brake on anti-EU forces and sparked the question of which European political family his national party would join. While seemingly a natural fit with the EU’s Liberals, Macron has kept his options open and distanced himself from the Spitzenkandidat process, counting perhaps on a strong showing in the upcoming European legislative elections to enhance his leverage. The other special factor involves the EU’s traditional approach of filling top jobs through grand bargains that balance national and party interests. Several much-coveted EU posts, including the head of the European Central Bank, will be vacated and need to be filled by end-2019. All this could increase the chances of a compromise candidate for commission chief.
How important is the commission presidency?
The job is the EU’s most powerful because the commission serves as both the command deck and the engine room of the bloc. While EU policies result from almost constant exchanges among national governments and European institutions, the commission presidency is the sole position that reflects, influences and manages the bloc’s priorities as a whole. The only other EU post that comes close in terms of clout is that of European Council president, who chairs meetings of the bloc’s national leaders.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.