The Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidates, process was first employed in the run up to the 2014 European Parliament elections, leading to President Jean Claude Juncker’s election. A broad interpretation of Article 17(7) of the Lisbon Treaty enabled the Parliament to assign itself a more active role in the process of appointing the new Commission President, which it argues enhances the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission.
Given that the process is not mentioned in the EU Treaties, no explicit rules exist that need to be followed. For the Parliament - which adopted a resolution urging the Council to follow the process - it is key that a candidate is backed by a majority of MEPs, has been designated as lead candidate by a European political group, and has campaigned for the post ahead of the elections. It is allegedly willing to reject any candidate that does not meet these conditions, yet it is unclear how the Parliament would deal with the possibility of any of the lead candidates failing to command a majority.
The Council, which has traditionally held the exclusive competence of appointing the new Commission President and still holds the legal mandate to nominate a candidate, has criticised the process for intruding on its authority. One of the fiercest opponents of the process has been French President Emmanuel Macron, who argues the system is too restrictive and would always benefit the Christian Democratic EPP, which is historically the largest political group. His criticism is further based on the lack of transnational lists, meaning that a direct vote for a specific Spitzenkandidat can only take place within their respective Member State.
Other leaders have argued that a Spitzenkandidat is no more democratic than a candidate chosen by elected government leaders, including Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel who criticised the process for failing to reach the electorate and argued that that none of his voters would know who the Spitzenkandidat for any of the political groups is. On a similar note Council President Donald Tusk, who will play a key role in aligning governments in their selection of a nominee, argued that the Parliament’s process is less democratic than before as it cuts out one of the two sources of democratic legitimacy involved in the election process. None of the leaders have been willing to exclude the possibility of nominating one of the Spitzenkandidaten for the Presidency, but they have also been unwilling to commit to the process as they do not want to see the Parliament take away their say in determining the political direction of the European Commission. It would therefore not be unexpected for this year’s election to turn into a power-struggle between the institutions.
Manfred Weber’s race to the top
Six political groups have proposed lead candidates (biographies are included in our candidates’ section). The frontrunner is considered to be Manfred Weber, who represents the European Parliament’s biggest political group, the EPP. Weber has been MEP since 2004, and contrary to previous Commission Presidents, his executive experience is limited to chairing the parliament’s EPP since 2014, not having ruled a national government or ministry before.
The EPP is a dominant player in the European Parliament, currently ruling in a Grand Coalition with the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), holding 53% of seats. However, both parties are expected to suffer losses in the upcoming elections and will likely be unable to reach a majority without forming an alliance with additional groups. Weber has so far ruled out working together with the Eurosceptic forces that are likely to strengthen their presence in the European Parliament. Potential alliances would instead include a Grand-Liberal coalition with the liberal democratic ALDE, likely to result in a majority of a mere 6 seats, or a Greens/Liberal coalition with the Greens and ALDE, likely to result in a majority of around 65 seats.
Significantly, Weber has said he is already holding coalition talks, as a majority will be required to elect the Commission President. However, it is looking uncertain that he will be able to convince potential coalition parties to support his call for Commission President with the S&D and ALDE signalling they won’t support Weber. This criticism he faces partly centres on his lack of experience but also targets his seemingly timid personality, especially given the competition from seasoned government leaders and current Commissioners, the S&D’s Frans Timmermans and ALDE’s Margrethe Vestager. Whether the Parliament is able to form consensus around a single Spitzenkandidat will be key for the survival of the process, which is otherwise likely to be overturned by Council.
Michel Barnier as alternative candidate
In this regard, Weber may also be facing competition from within his own political group, where the EU’s Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier has been named as a potential alternative candidate. Although Barnier has not formally announced his candidacy, he has become a public advocate for European unity and has continued to hold meetings on this with government leaders as well as speeches across the EU, despite Brexit being on hold from the EU side. It would not be the first time that Barnier would be interested in the role, as he also ran in 2014, when he lost within his party to current President Juncker.
Barnier benefits from his close relationships with the EU’s heads of state, as well as the name he has built for himself throughout the Brexit process. Even Macron, who openly criticises Weber, may be more open to the possibility of Barnier as a compromise candidate. This is key, as given France’s dominant role in the EU it would be very unlikely that a candidate would be elected Commission President without Macron’s approval. Moreover, if the outcomes of the elections create a strongly divided European Parliament, the Council will likely use this as an opportunity to override the Spitzenkandidat process and put forward an alternative candidate – and we expect Barnier to be on top of their list.
Council summit 28 May
What further supports the latter assumption is that President Donald Tusk announced that EU government leaders will be holding a summit on 28 May to assign top EU jobs – a mere two days after the elections. This indicates that the Council is planning to stay ahead of the game and is ready to ensure it can exercise its legal mandate of nominating the Commission President. Tusk has stated that he would like the process to be as smooth as possible and that, while he aims to stick to the tradition of nominating the candidate by consensus, he is also ready to take the decision by qualified majority if this is too difficult to achieve.