Quo Vadis Spitzenkandidaten?

26 September 2023 /

5 min

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the State of the European Union 2023 [Alexis HAULOT/ European Parliament]
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the State of the European Union 2023 [Alexis HAULOT/ European Parliament]

Amid the echoes of this year’s State of the European Union (SOTEU) address, a pivotal question emerges: Can the Spitzenkandidaten procedure make a comeback in the upcoming EU elections?

This year’s SOTEU was a trifold event; not only did it remind us of the definitive end of the summer break, it also allowed the incumbent head of the EU executive to elaborate on the Commission’s successes, as well as to ring the bell for the last year of the legislative period ahead of the upcoming EU elections in 2024. But Ursula von der Leyen did not answer the most pressing question on the EU-bubble’s collective consciousness: will she be the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat for next year’s EU elections?

Whether or not the Spitzenkandidaten procedure will see a revival is at stake, since most parties have not yet positioned themselves on the matter. Yet in 2022, the European Parliament adopted the EU electoral act, which would allow citizens to vote for the President of the Commission through the Spitzenkandidaten procedure with EU-wide lists. Further, it would set the elections for the 9th of May, Europe day. 

But the European Council rejected the proposal, refusing to even enter into negotiations. Now, the elections will be held between the 6th and 9th of June 2024, a missed opportunity to increase democratic legitimacy and deepen the perception of a European identity. 

Spitzenkandidaten – then and now

Firstly used in 2014, the Spitzenkandidaten procedure gave the EU elections a more national flair, with the appointment of the Commission head being linked to the election results. Here, the EPP’s lead candidate, former Luxembourgish Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, won the race, securing him the position as Commission chairman. 

Hailed as a success and an antidote to the often criticized democratic deficit in the EU at first, the procedure turned out to be of a short lifespan, as the 2019 elections proved. Here, nobody saw the EPP’s candidate of choice, Manfred Weber, as a good fit for the role of Commission president. In response, the member states, who are not very fond of the idea of a Spitzenkandidaten per se, proposed Ursula von der Leyen as head of the Commission to the European Parliament. And here we are now, nearly 5 years later.

What went wrong? Some argue that Weber did not bring to the table what is expected from a Commission president. While Juncker’s political record is impressive, being minister as well as Prime Minister and head of the Euro Group, Weber, whose most important role was that of an MEP (and who is by far less charismatic), could just not make the cut for the member states. 

Jean-Claude Juncker at his last SOTEU speech in 2018 [Mathieu CUGNOT/European Parliament]

While many saw von der Leyen’s appointment as a death blow to the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, it is still not sure whether it will be used in the upcoming election. At the time, no European political party has designated a lead candidate. And with member states and far-right parties not being very fond of the procedure, its future is far from certain.

What is known thus far is that the co-chair of The Left in the European Parliament group (GUE/NGL), Manon Aubry, told Euractiv that her party will be designating a Spitzenkandidat in the upcoming months, expressing her support for the procedure. Further, the European Greens have announced in a statement that they will be putting forward a Spitzenkandidaten duo for the 2024 elections.

What is also known is that the EU is becoming more policitised and its institutional model more partisan in nature. This not only provides the often overlooked European political parties (or Europarties) with a chance to gain more visibility and relevance, but also the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, the appointment of which the Europarties are responsible for.

But with the procedure being such a point of contention in the EU’s institutional structure, it appears impossible to anticipate the eventual route it will take, and whether all Europarties, as the European Left and the Greens, will nominate a candidate.

Back to SOTEU: a hidden message?

Even though von der Leyens was not a Spitzenkandidat, her SOTEU speech highlighted that she was nonetheless a successful head of the EU executive. For instance, she states that  “over 90 percent of the political guidelines [she] presented in 2019” have been converted thus far, although research conducted by the European Parliament suggests that the number is closer to about 69 percent.

Yet, from stressing the importance of digitalisation and regulating AI, to calling out a new Social Partner Summit in 2024 and announcing an investigation into Chinese subsidies that kept the prices of electric vehicles artificially low – the speech of the incumbent president seemed like an enumeration of the Commission’s past term successes.

And there might be more to come under von der Leyen. Already with the first sentence of her speech, von der Leyen reminded us that in “under 300 days, Europeans will take to the polls in our unique and remarkable democracy.” Further, she stresses that “our work is far from over” and that we should “deliver today and prepare for tomorrow”, hinting at the possibility that she might want to be in charge again after next year’s election. 

Reading between the lines conveys the impression that von der Leyen might not be too averse to the idea of running for another term in office. If she will be positioned as the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat is yet to be determined. The reason why she has not yet been named top candidate could be a political calculation. 

Considering that the EPP and the Commission had rather opposing opinions in the recent past, this would allow von der Leyen to portray herself as the politically neutral and problem-solving technocrat that she wants to be perceived as. What is sure is that if she were to announce her run as Spitzenkandidat for the EPP, other political families would undoubtedly follow.

With the different stakeholders slowly but surely getting ready for the electoral campaigns, things can only get more interesting. Whatever the next months will bring in regard to the Spitzenkandidaten and the EU elections, Eyes on Europe will be on the lookout for the latest developments.

Luka Krauss is a master student at the Institute of European Studies & Editor in Chief (ENG) of Eyes on Europe.

(Edited by Daniele Bogani/Mario Vega)

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