Behind the scenes of the Spitzenkandidaten

#BeersPoliticsEU welcomed Nereo Peñalver on Thursday 10/09. Nereo gave us an insider’s point of view on the first pan-European Presidential campaign, the so called Spitzenkandidaten.

Nereo Peñalver is an expert on EU politics, currently working as foreign policy adviser in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. He is the author, together with Sir Julian Priestley, of the book ‘The Making of a European President’ on the first pan-European Presidential campaign.

Why did we have Presidential elections in 2014 and not before?

  1. The Spitzenkandidaten, or “Lead Candidates” is a process that has borrowed a German word. «process by which European political parties presented lead candidates for Presidency of the European Commission».
  2. There was an idea in federalist circles since 90s that EU decisions have an impact in citizen’s lives. They create winners and losers. It is therefore fair to give citizens a choice on who takes these decisions. There was a belief that personifying the debate and creating a European public space/opinion (demos) would lead to an increase in turnout in the medium to long term.

Why in 2014?

There were several reasons for this:

  1. The recent adoption of the Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament more competences and a renewed confidence.
  2. Moreover, there was a clear need to regain the trust of the EU citizens after the greatest economic and social crisis in the last 80 years. Democratically disconnected, the EU was seen by many as imposing austerity on its Member States
  3. No need for a treaty change: The EU operates in a much more complicated constitutional set up than many of our countries. Modifications of the constitutional treaties have to be ratified by the parliaments in 28 member states. This might not be the fastest way to respond to a changing reality.
  4. The blood pact of members of the European Parliament like Martin Schulz, Joseph Daul and Guy Verhofstadt showing a great amount of leadership was key in this process.

Before the Spitzenkandidaten, EU citizens could only vote for Members of the European Parliament. But the majorities in parliament would have no impact on who leads the EU executive. In 2014 citizens were able to choose which kind of Europe they wanted by voting for one of the different visions of Europe defended by the Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals or the Greens.

What was the result of the experience? Lessons learnt 2014:

  1.  Challenge: Candidates had only 6 weeks to convince almost 400 million voters in 24 languages, among 28 Member States with different political cultures.
  2. Success in Europeanising the campaign: For the first time, European topics were broadly discussed. Investment vs fiscal consolidation, free movement of people, Ukraine, TTIP…Before the EU elections, the «second order model» applied. Discussions on national issues and incumbent party were often punished and there was no effect on party’s position on EU matters. We now moved into the «politics matters model» where what parties offer at EU level plays a role in voters deciding to vote for a given party.
  3. We noted that, in Western Europe pro-integration attitudes lost votes (-4,6%). In Eastern Europe pro-integration attitudes won votes (+ 8,7%)
  4. For the first time there were candidates touring Europe and TV debates broadcasted live.
  5.  Still a long way from a U.S. presidential election, especially in terms of citizen engagement, it couldn’t either be transformed into real Presidential elections like in EU member states for limited amount of time to campaign and linguistic diversity, which limits a transnational campaign. But it was a first step.
  6.  The credibility of the spitzenkandidaten process is now established despite many questions asked by the media during the process. Now it is an stablished procedure, it is like joining the Mafia, there is no way back. The European Parliament won the battle and ended up electing the leader of the political party that won the European elections.

What does this change in EU politics?

A change in Inter-institutional balance, but in a counter-intuitive way:

The parliamentarisation of the EU

Before election of President of the Commission (EU government) taken by heads of State and Government behind closed doors. Now the President is elected by the parliament.

So, one may think that, as a result, it gives a greater say to the Parliament in the legislative priorities of the Executive. But, in practice, it also originated a greater support of the parliament for EU executive. It seems that because of the new procedure, the Parliament gains new powers that it might lose if the Commission it elected under this new procedure failed. It is indeed the first time that a parliamentary majority is backing the executive (common in almost all our countries but not in the EU until now).

The President has a reinforced democratic mandate: a double legitimacy having the support of both national governments and European Parliament.

The EU is beset by some of the gravest problems in its history:

  1. Strengthening euro governance
  2. A humanitarian crisis at its borders
  3. Internal security in the age of terrorism
  4. Tensions to the East
  5. The risk of Brexit
  6. Having an executive with authority and legitimacy is vital if the EU is to confront these challenges.

Commission again at the centre of decision-making:

An agenda setting President, taking the initiative on key challenges Europe faces: mediating in Greek crisis, European investment plan, quotas for refugees, etc.

To finish my presentation:

My main point is that the Spitzenkandidaten process is not a magic wand that suddenly made the EU more democratic and accessible to its citizens. But it is a step in the right direction.

Can the EU be seen as doing something useful for its citizens? There lays the credibility of the Spitzenkandidaten process. It is crucial for the EU to deliver in the next 4 years.