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Ten Reasons why the Spitzenkandidaten process is withering on the vine

Ten reasons why the spitzenkandidaten process is 'withering on the vine': Please note some may be an over-exaggeration due to the inability to check the situation on the ground across the 28 EU member states. So, I am happy to stand corrected in light of new evidence.

 

1. What happened to the promise of primaries (in a similar fashion as to the way that the US parties select their candidates)? This idea was part of the fanfare when the spitzenkandidaten procedure was being conceived.

 

2. The online versions of the manifestoes carried on the party websites - If we take a look at the pdf version of the 2019 manifesto of the PES, on its website, there is no mention of the Spitzenkandidaten (it might be that a glossy version with pictures, as with the 2014 version, does). Manfred Weber is mentioned on page 14 - the final page of the EPP manifesto but there is no photograph of him. In 2014, there was a full-page photo of Juncker on page 2 of the manifesto and on the back cover. One of the main reasons for the spitzenkandidaten procedure is that the Europarties selected candidate(s) is meant to be 'the face' of the European election campaign.(Again the physical copy might be different)

 

3. What happened to the pan-European televised debates? Yes, there were a number of debates though I think only one with all of the main candidates. But the debates do not appear to have been picked up by the main channels of the National TV broadcasters (they were on some of smaller or on-line channels of major broadcasters).

 

4. If it is not connected to transnational lists (the position of President Macron) then it is fundamentally weakened/undermined.

 

5. The Liberals essentially disowned it. Plus their TEAM spitzenkandidaten approach undermines the original idea that voters would have an opportunity to ‘vote for’ the Commission President.

 

6. If Manfred Weber, from the EPP, is not chosen as the Commission President (which looks increasingly likely) then the process is not following the original intention of its own rationale i.e. that the Commission President supposedly emanates from the Spitzenkandidat of the Europarty that wins the most seats in the European election.

 

7. The spitzenkandidaten procedure lacks an explicit legal foundation that would protect it.

 

8. The public, when presented with the photos of the candidates, have great difficulty identifying the political figures who are standing for their respective Europarties. The statistics for the on-line videos (YouTube) of some of the main candidates were particularly low. In the case of Manfred Weber, for example, views of the individual videos posted by the EPP ranged from 200-2000 (May 31st).

 

9. When voters across the EU vote, the ballot papers don't have any indication of the spitzenkandidaten. In fact, many member states still do not allow the logos of the Europarties to be on the ballot papers. And from some of the national campaigns, it still looked like many national parties do not include the logos of their Europarty on their campaign posters.

 

10. So in the end it is extremely difficult for voters to make the connection between their vote and the president of the European Commission - this is supposedly the connection via which the legitimacy of the spitzenkandidaten process rests on.

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RE: Spitzenkandidat process and the European Council

Last week, during a debate organized by the Financial Times and the European Union Institute (Florence) the four main Spitzenkandidaten were highly critical of the European Council. Looks like the European Council has just fired back. Following its Sibu (Romania) summit, the content and tone of EC President Donald Tusk’s press conference appears crystal clear:

 

"I can state one thing with complete certainty. The leaders have categorically demonstrated that they want to take full political responsibility not only for single events or challenges, but for the European Union as a whole. Put simply, the member states and their democratically elected leaders want to actively shape the way the EU functions and develops.’

 

In expressing the general will of the European Council, as a whole, his words highlight the deep unease that exists amongst national leaders about the process. It is important to remember that national leaders are also the leaders of national political parties that are meant to invite 'their' spitzenkandidaten to national party rallies and introduce their spitzenkandidaten to their electorate. It will be interesting to see how many actually do in the next two weeks. Although the winning spitzenkandidat can be endorsed by the Council via a qualiifed majority (if a consensus cannot be reached - as happended in 2014 when two member states voted against Jean Cluade juncker) the extent of the unease (at present) makes even that appear unlikely.

 

A post-European election institutional showdown with the European Parliament, over the spitzenkandidaten process, seems assured.

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Will they or won't they?

Nearly three years after the Brexit referendum will the United Kingdom (UK) hold European elections on May 23rd? If the elections are held, will it end up being a single-issue election i.e. a re-run of the referendum that crowds out all other issues? Clearly with the present uncertainty about when, or if, Brexit will happen, preparations need to be made by the Electoral Commission and local authorities across the country to logistically ensure its smoothrunning. Then, of course, the question of which political group, within the European Parliament, would benefit from an influx of UK MEPs would take center-stage. Can it really happen?     

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A liberal pincer movement against Spitzenkandidaten 2.0.?

Back at the end of October 2018, I wrote a short briefing note entitled Spitzenkandidaten 2.0. Primed to disappoint? Destined to fail? My concern was that ‘the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the initiative will result in the Spitzenkandidaten process (the process of the Europarties choosing a leading candidate for the European elections who would become a household name) ‘withering on the vine’. This situation was tied to what I termed ‘a dilemma of indifference’ from many of the key players that are needed to justify, promote and sustain it. Without such support, I felt, the purpose of the initiative becomes increasingly vulnerable to being hollowed out.  A piece by Mehreen Khan in the Financial Times a few months later would seem to concur. She felt that the process ‘…seems in a constant fight to prove its legitimacy…’ [‘EU liberals struggle to muster energy for the Spitzenkandidat race’ January 30, 2019].  On the same day, Peter Teffer in EUObserver questioned the impact of the shift towards European party families nominating more than one candidate – the Greens, the Party of European Left, and the Liberals (most likely). From his perspective that means that ‘the so-called ‘Spitzenkandidat’ system is not going to deliver what is original architects intended’ i.e. that the leading candidate of the political family that garners the most seats in the European Parliament would automatically become the Commission President. With a slate of multiple candidates there would be no-way of voters knowing who would be set to become Commission President? [‘The de facto demise of the Spitzenkandidaten idea’, EUObserver, January 30, 2019 - https://euobserver.com/elections/144035].

 

Central to the concern about its viability has been a constant stream of indifference from the European Council and an apparent lack of ownership of the process amongst the national political parties that constitute the Europarties. And more recently, the increasing intensity of the indifference towards it from one of its original stakeholders: the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe-Party (ALDE-P). Concerning the European Council, there is little indication that any of the national delegations have changed their position since a 2016 (April 20) Presidency Non-paper pointed out that:

 

All delegations but one are opposed to these provisions. They concur with the Council Legal Service that the institutionalization of the 2014 “Spitzenkandidaten” precedent raises concerns and is not in line with the institutional prerogatives of the European Council defined in Article 17(7(TEU) [emphasis added]

 

This meant that a year ago President Tusk was able to say: ‘There is no automaticity in this process. The Treaty is very clear that it is the autonomous competence of the European Council to nominate the candidate, while taking into account the European elections, and having held appropriate consultations’ (Feb 23, 2018 News Conference). We also know that President Macron of France has been one of the most high-profile figures to have questioned its rationale. Macron and the ALDE-P are also in the process of trying to work out how they might formerly co-operate with each other after May’s European parliamentary elections – a factor that could be contributing to the ALDE’s increasing animosity towards the spitzenkandidaten process. This was a long way off from December 2017, when the party’s congress in Amsterdam set out an agreed procedure for participating in spitzenkandidaten 2.0.  The changed narrative emanating from key figures within the ALDE party family illustrates that shift. This has unfolded during two rounds of high-profile questioning during the past six months.

 

ROUND ONE - At the beginning of September 2018, ALDE-P President Hans van Baalen began voicing serious concerns about the Spitzenkandidaten process. He argued that it is no longer that different from the ‘backroom’ deals that used to take place within the European Council.

“Now the Group leader of the EPP Manfred Weber MEP aims to replace Commission President Juncker? That's too much. The European Liberals and Democrats of ALDE along with others such as En Marche of French President Marcron have to stop the backroom deals of the EPP. Manfred Weber? No go!” [Quoted in “Manfred Weber? No go!” says ALDE Party President 08/09/2018. See https://www.aldeparty.eu/news/manfred-weber-no-go-says-alde-party-president]

 

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager (from the ALDE-P) who was touted as a likely ALDE-P Spitzenkandidat throughout much of the year, also injected an element of doubt about its focus on a single candidate and its legitimacy. From her perspective: “In most countries, 27 countries at least, you will not be able to vote for this person,” she said, adding that the idea European voters could elect the Commission president is “complete fiction.” [Taken from ‘Vestager knocks Spitzenkandidat system to pick Commission chief’, Politico, 18 September 2018].

 

At the end of the month, van Baalen continued the line that questioned the legitimacy/value of the process as originally conceived: ‘in Europe, nobody is interested in the Spitzenkandidat process.’ [Twitter, September 27, 2018]. Perhaps even more surprising was Guy Verhofstadt’s extensive critique given that he was the public face of the ALDE for Spitzenkandidaten 1.0. in 2014):

 

“The EPP severely weakened the support for it the moment they killed the proposals for transnational lists that were supposed to be part of the system. The result is that citizens will not be able to directly vote for a Spitzenkandidat…We were very much in favour and then we became very critical of this… by rejecting the transnational lists, they killed the Spitzenkandidaten. They were the ones who killed it. It remains a system where Angela Merkel is the one who decides who is the next Commission President [Quoted in ‘Verhofstadt denies 'flip-flopping' over Spitzenkandidaten’, The Parliament Magazine, September 14, 2018].

 

By the end of September 2018, therefore, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Liberal family was not going to select a single Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate). In its place, would be a wider-based “Team” approach. This was formerly announced at the Party Congress in early November. The precise line-up of figures, from across the party, is expected to be announced at the party’s European election campaign launch on March 21st. Hardly any time to ensure their team becomes household names.

 

ROUND TWO – In mid- January 2019 Herszenhorn et al, writing in Politico, claimed that the ALDE ‘…is actively working to undermine the lead candidate process’ [David M. Herszenhorn, Florian Eder and Maia de la Baume, ‘The trials and tribulations of Manfred Weber’, Politico, January 17, 2019]. Two weeks later, the interjections of the Finnish Prime Minister and Dutch Foreign Minister appeared to validate that assertion. Juha Sipilä (Prime Minister of Finland and leader of the Centre Party which is a member party of the ALDE-P) stated: ‘I don’t like this idea about Spitzenkandidats… I think that in democracy we have to make compromises also. It’s not clear that the biggest party will take this position…. We have emphasized in the Council also that this is not binding at all. We have also – I have said it many times in the European Council – I can’t agree that this Spitzenkandidat process binds in any way the European Council. Because it has to be negotiation, compromise’ [Quoted in ‘Finnish prime minister: Spitzenkandidat process “not binding at all’. Politico, February 1, 2019]. A few days later, the Dutch Foreign Minister, Stef Blok (from the VVD – People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy also a member party of the ALDE-P) writing for the Financial Times, used quite dramatic language to describe the spitzenkandidaten process 1.0.

 

‘The current commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, prides itself on being political and was the product of the spitzenkandidaten process in 2014. This was nothing less than an institutional coup d’état in which the European Parliament succeeded in installing the candidate of its choice as commission president. This year, if no clear majority emerges for one of the current candidates, the European Council may propose a candidate of its own’ [See ‘A less political European Commission is needed’, Financial Times, February 5, 2019].

 

At the time of writing, therefore, despite the intentions of figures such as Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans who are already on the unofficial campaign trial seeking to build momentum as the leading candidates of the EPP and the PES: will it all be in vain? Khan (Financial Times, January 30 op.cit) did acknowledge that the process ‘…has surprised Brussels once before by delivering a president in the end’ so it might do so once again. Added to that the European Parliament is not going to let it fall without a fight. It also remains to be seen whether a common candidate from the political forces connected to the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom will emerge - which would certainly stir things up.

 

All-in-all, though, while the obituary of spitzenkandidaten process remains in abeyance I have yet to be convinced that key figures (especially national political leaders and national political parties) are prepared to invest the time, energy or political capital to ensure its success. Yes, the process is taking place but it is still far from assured that the ‘winning candidate’ will actually become the Commission President. Without the embrace of key players, at the European and national level, it does indeed seem destined to wither on the vine.

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2019 European Elections - the long run-in

The long run-in begins. The UK newspaper, The Guardian, has just published an interesting article. Check it out here.

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EPP Congress - Spitzenkandidat Official Result - Weber wins

Manfred Weber 492 out 619 that's about 79 percent. 127 votes for Stubb

 

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EPP Congress - unofficial result

The rumour that I just heard is that the results will be 80-20 in favour of Manfred Weber. Let's see the offical result will be coming shortly

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EPP Secretary General Defends Spitzenkandidaten process

Antonio López-Istúriz Secretary General of the EPP - stressed that the Spitzenkandidaten  process is here to stay and that rumours that either of the two potential EPP candidates would not end up being EPP candidate (after the next European election) were completely false* and that EPP will not allow the spitzenkandidaten process to be undermined (i.e. by the European Council). From his perspective: 'the spitzenkandidaten process is our humble approach to the dream of a directly elected President of the European Commission'

 

*there have been rumours in the media that Angela Merkel might end up being the EPP choice

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EPP Congress, Helsinki Nov. 7-8

EPP [European People’s Party] Congress, Helsinki, November 7-8

On a dark grey and damp morning here in Helsinki [though nice and cool compared to Japan] the supporters of EPP prospective candidate for the President of the European Commission, Alex Stubb, brought a splash of vibrancy to the opening morning of the EPP Congress. Congregating just outside of the Congress Hall they were rewarded with a visit from their candidate, just after 8am. He ensured that he thanked everyone there. An hour later he was introducing himself to the meeting of the ESU [European Seniors’ Union].

 

Unfortunately, there was not an opportunity for a direct debate between the two candidates - Alex Stubb and Manfred Weber – during the five-week unofficial campaign. Stubb, though, has clearly done his best to conduct a pan-European campaign in order to build momentum beyond his candidature. Most likely though it will not be enough.

 

*On an aside, it was interesting to note he was pushing the trolley of his campaign material in the Congress Hall. It shold also be noted that he took unpaid leave from his job to undertake his campaign.

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Spitzenkandidaten 2.0. Let the Games Commence...

Spitzenkandidaten 2.0. is here! While the Socialists will officially declare their candidates next week, the EPP race between the favourite Manfred Weber (EPP Group Leader in the European Parliament) and Alexander Stubb (former prime minister and foreign minister of Finland) has already started. Some, though, are arguing that it is already over before it has begun. The weekly newspaper New Europe for example ran a front-page headline on its October 21-27 edition 'The EPP’s Spitzenkandidat race may already be over'. Nevertheless, it appears that Stubb is trying to run a dynamic and engaging campaign in order to persuade the 734 voting delegates at the EPP Helsinki Congress (November 7-9) to produce an upset. He is even offering to meet face-to-face. In a tweet sent out on the evening of October 21 he wrote: 'If you are an @EPP-delegate at the Helsinki Congress 6-8 November, and if you would like to have a chat or meeting before or
during the Congress, please be in contact either through DM or by sending an e-mail...'

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