Members' Research Service By / June 12, 2023

Spitzenkandidaten or the lead candidate process: Ways to Europeanise elections to the European Parliament

With the intention of informing discussion in the approach to the 2024 European elections, this study examines the historical, factual and legal aspects surrounding the Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidate process, which establishes a political link between the nomination of the President of the European Commission and the political composition of the European Parliament.

© Photocreo Bednarek / Adobe Stock

Written by Silvia Kotanidis.

The investiture of the President of the European Commission is a process that has evolved since the beginning of European integration. From the Treaty of Rome to the beginning of the 1980s, the role of the European Parliament was almost inexistent. With the 1983 Stuttgart Declaration, Parliament acquired an embryonic consultative role whereby the non-binding opinion of the Enlarged Bureau (Parliament’s Bureau plus leaders of the political groups) was sought prior to the appointment of the President. In 1992, the Treaty of Maastricht formalised the consultation of the European Parliament, but its role remained non-binding. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam introduced Parliament’s approval to the investiture procedure when it entered into force in 1999, and this was retained with the Treaty of Nice in 2001. Finally, in 2009 the Treaty of Lisbon introduced the procedure applicable today, establishing a political link between the vote on the President of the European Commission. According to Article 17(7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the Commission President is today elected by Parliament by a majority of the component Members in a process in which the European Council, acting by qualified majority and taking into account the elections to the European Parliament, proposes a candidate to the European Parliament.

The lead candidate process is a political process, based on the European political parties nominating the (lead) candidate they would support as President of the Commission, ahead of the European elections. The lead candidate then fronts the electoral campaign across the EU and presents the political programme of the party of reference. The lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidaten process, was run for the first time in 2014, and a second time in 2019, with contrasting results. However, the idea had been floated in European circles and academia since the 1990s. Supporters consider that the lead candidate process could make the process of selection of the leader of the ‘EU executive’ more transparent and shelter the choice from intergovernmental influence and the ‘horse trading’ dynamics often present in the European Council. A further purpose was to provide greater democratic legitimacy to the office of head of the European Union’s executive by giving voters the chance to influence the choice of the Commission President. This would have brought EU political processes closer to their national versions, making the EU method of appointing EU leaders more comprehensible to the public. A further purpose was to inject some dynamism into EU elections by personalising the electoral campaign and associating a specific candidate with a political programme, which should motivate citizens to turn out to vote. Finally, the lead candidate process was thought to be a step towards the creation of a European demos, i.e. a place where candidates campaigning across the EU discuss EU-wide issues, addressing EU voters.

The lead candidate process was run for the first time in 2014 with Jean‑Claude Juncker, the European People’s Party (EPP) lead candidate, elected President of the Commission. However, in 2019, the process was not as successful, as Ursula von der Leyen was appointed by the European Council as President of the Commission without having been a Spitzenkandidat. Research on the impact of the lead candidate process has highlighted that the 2014 Spitzenkandidaten process gained a certain visibility in media debates, giving prominence to EU-related topics. This increased visibility was also linked to the contingent financial and sovereign debt crises and to the polarisation introduced to the debate between pro-European and Eurosceptic movements. Turnout however remained stagnant in 2014 (with a slight fall of 0.36 percentage points compared to 2009) and the visibility of the lead candidates remained low (19 % of the respondents to a 2014 post-election survey recognised Jean-Claude Juncker, while 17 % recognised Martin Schulz, lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists, PES), with higher peaks in the lead candidates’ home countries. However, a higher percentage of respondents (41 %) recognised that a vote for a lead candidate and for a specific European party was a vote for the future President of the European Commission. The link between the lead candidates and the national political parties, a connection that boosts lead candidates’ visibility during electoral campaigns, was not strong. This is also recognised in a European Commission report on the 2014 European elections and by some commentators (e.g. Peñalver and Priestley). Notwithstanding these flaws, the 2014 lead candidate process can be considered a positive experience, as it helped end the decline in voter turnout, added transparency to the selection of candidates for the President of the Commission and instilled self-confidence in the Commission, which could now claim to be more political thanks to enhanced popular legitimacy.

In 2019, the repetition of the experiment had to take account of European Council President Donald Tusk’s declaration, ahead of the elections, that renewed adoption of the lead candidate process was not automatic and that the European Council claimed full ownership of the right to propose a candidate to Parliament. With more preparation by the European political parties, the lead candidate process was run by almost all European political parties, including some that had not participated in the process in the 2014 elections. Among the main reasons for the failure of the lead candidate process in 2019, commentators highlight the lack of a candidate with the requisite experience required by the European Council (e.g. Jim Cloos). De Wilde also mentions the unsuccessful 2018 electoral reform, which would have introduced a Union-wide constituency, as a factor in the lack of support for the lead candidate process; the lack of a truly European electoral debate; and the fragmented opinion of European political parties regarding some lead candidates. Notwithstanding these weaknesses, turnout increased in 2019 (+8.05 percentage points), the highest turnout in European elections since 1994.

After the 2019 set-back, the question is whether the lead candidate process has a future, considering that – in addition to the commendable aim to improve transparency, legitimacy and personalisation – it, in principle, brings the EU closer to citizens by emulating national processes of selection of the premier. This study explores several avenues that could keep the lead candidate process alive.

A first avenue consists of improving the status quo by working on the interinstitutional dimension, intra-parliamentary cohesion, and improving practical arrangements to facilitate the process. This option presupposes that a certain degree of maturity is reached in relations between the two participating institutions and that the European Parliament and European Council work in synergy. European political parties should therefore carefully select their lead candidates with a view to incorporating the requirements that the European Council considers indispensable, at an early stage. For the European Council, this would mean going beyond the wording of the Treaty provision and recognising the development of European societies that demand greater transparency in politics and more involvement for citizens in political life. If the right equilibrium is reached, the repetition of the lead candidate process over time could lead to the establishment of a constitutional convention or practice.

A second avenue could be the recognition of the lead candidate process in an interinstitutional agreement, a legal instrument provided for under Article 295 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which however does not include the European Council as one of the possible contracting institutions, casting some doubt on the legal feasibility of this option. This was proposed in the pending reform of the European Electoral Act (legislative resolution of 3 May 2022 on the proposal for a Council Regulation on the election of the Members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage (2020/2220(INL) – 2022/0902(APP)).

A third option would be to incorporate the lead candidate process in a reform of the European Electoral Act. The 2015 Hübner-Leinen report made an attempt in this direction, to which the introduction of a Union-wide constituency was later added. However, this reform was not adopted by the Council.

A fourth option would be to refer to the lead candidate in the Treaties. This option would require an ordinary Treaty revision, which is a legally burdensome procedure, due to the ‘double unanimity’ required, as well as presenting political difficulties. Treaty provisions incorporating the lead candidate process could provide, for example, that in the framework of the necessary consultations the European Council hears the lead candidates before formalising the proposal for a Commission President candidate; that the European Council must vote on the first- or second-ranking lead candidate before resorting to a different candidate; that the European Council considers as a candidate for the Commission President, the lead candidate able to garner a parliamentary majority; that the European Council is required to consider the lead candidate with the most votes (or second-most), or finally to invert the role of the institutions by making Parliament the institution that proposes the candidate for President of the Commission to the European Council, which must then vote on that proposal.

The Spitzenkandidaten process is one of the measures proposed by the Conference on the Future of Europe. Proposal 38(4) states that ‘European citizens should have a greater say on who is elected as President of the Commission. This could be achieved either by the direct election of the Commission President or a lead candidate system’. This desire of citizens to be able to influence EU decisions and the choice of EU leadership should not be overlooked in following up on the Conference’s results. In this respect, the lead candidate process can play a considerable role.

Read the complete study on ‘Spitzenkandidaten or the lead candidate process: Ways to Europeanise elections to the European Parliament‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament

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