Five lessons from the “Spitzenkandidaten” European Parliament campaign

Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination is part of a “silent revolution” in European governance that will transform power within the EU.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as president of the European Commission marks the end of the second stage in the quiet transformation of European Union structures and policies. Since the end of the European Parliament elections in May, political families and governments have been bargaining and arguing over the new commission head. Their negotiations demonstrate the effect of the politicisation of EU institutions and policymaking together with the emerging pattern of intergovernmentalism in the EU that Piotr Buras has described as a “silent revolution”.

The “Spitzenkandidaten” campaign, in which the major parties each nominated their own candidate for commission president ahead of the results of the vote, represents a counter-revolution in terms of institutional politics. The European Commission’s president is proposed by the European Council. Until 2004, the traditional approach to choosing the president was through bipartisan agreement on a common candidate between the core countries around the Franco-German centre. But in 2004, the European People’s Party (EPP) carried out a coup. In that year, EPP leaders successfully caucused before the European Council meeting to agree on placing their own candidate at the helm of the European Commission, overturning the previous consensus approach.

A decade later, after José Manuel Barroso’s two presidential terms as EPP candidate, S&D leader Martin Schulz as initiator of the Spitzenkandidaten campaign led a revolt of Europe’s social democrats and the European Parliament S&D faction against the EPP coup. In 2013, the S&D proclaimed Schulz as “Spitzenkandidat”, the party’s choice for head of the European Commission. The Liberals and Greens followed suit with their own nominations, forcing the EPP to nominate their own frontrunner, tying their hands with regard to manoeuvring within the European Council. That was the first stage of the “silent revolution”. It was silent indeed: all the rhetoric and public attention was focused on the selling proposition of strengthening European democracy by giving voters a choice on who would lead the EU’s executive body.


Of course, these talks were accompanied by the necessary noise from the ranks of parliament, by the public positioning and repositioning of governments, and by media analysis and gossiping.

The second stage of the revolution began with the bazaar-style parleys among parties and governments after the EPP’s confirmation as the largest faction in the newly elected European Parliament. Of course, these talks were accompanied by the necessary noise from the ranks of parliament, by the public positioning and repositioning of governments, and by media analysis and gossiping. The S&D and EPP factions moved quickly, claiming for Juncker the chance to win a majority of the house, which triggered irritation among EPP-led member state governments. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron provided cover for others’ concerns with his uncompromising rejection of Juncker on the grounds of lack of qualifications and violation of the privileges of the European Council. German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to broaden the debate by representing Juncker as one good candidate among several others. The Dutch and Swedish prime ministers attempted to build bridges with Cameron by enlisting support from Merkel. In the end, Cameron’s intransigence, the steadfastness of the EPP MEPs, and Juncker’s determination not to step aside left Merkel with only one option. She had to give Juncker’s candidacy her full support.


At this point, the bargaining shifted from picking a candidate to haggling over issues and packages. This demonstrated another aspect of the Spitzenkandidaten revolution: because of the need to win the votes from across the political divide, the entire set of top European posts has become subject to negotiation. The outcome may well be that a social democrat receives the presidency of the European Council as well as the High Representative spot as part of the deal for making Juncker commission president. Moreover, a social democratic caucus backed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President François Hollande handed over their votes for Juncker in exchange for a promise that their key political issues would be put on the agenda of the next commission. Thus, the European Council’s to-do list for Juncker became broader, but at the same time its language was softened in order to keep member states on board. In this process, some of Cameron’s pet issues were watered down, and the British prime minister could not fight hard for them, because he did not want to compromise on the nomination issue.

This stage of the game was ended by Juncker’s nomination by all but the votes of Britain and Hungary, to be followed by his election to office by the European Parliament on 16 July. The process and its outcome will have profound significance for the power transformation within the EU:

  • The Spitzenkandidaten are here to stay. At the next elections in five years, no political group will stumble into the campaign the way they did in the run-up to 2014. Within the political families, the struggle to win the frontrunner position will become more controversial. As important as the German vote may be in European politics, it seems unlikely that two candidates will emerge again who could appear live on German TV without interpretation. Also, the post-election horse-trading in 2019 could prove to be more divisive if majorities in the parliament and the council disagree.
  • The Grand Coalition style of politics does not by itself address the frustrations and criticisms that have fuelled the fires of Eurosceptic, anti-European parties and groupings. That the two biggest political families have tied themselves to the Spitzenkandidaten process does not represent a landmark of European democracy as such, given the “Politikverdrossenheit” of many voters (“political disenchantment”, another German term that may find its way into Euro-English over the coming years) and their low esteem for politicians and political institutions. A much more active and open debate on Europe, both within and outside of the European Parliament, will be needed if the growth of anti-EU populism is to be kept in check.
  • Reforming the work of the commission in a time of difficult political choices will call for a strong president. Juncker may not be able to be one – not because he is incapable of it, but because he will face severe constraints. He will not have an open mandate; member state pressure on him will be strong, not least because the member states will be trying to balance the European Parliament’s perceived triumph in the nomination process. For its part, the parliament will take every opportunity to remind Juncker of its own role in his nomination, and will seek to increase the attention that the commission pays to issues and ideas raised by parliament well beyond the scope of the Barroso Commission. Juncker’s proven stubbornness in the campaign may lead him to seek independence from both pressure groups, but the pressure on him will still be profound.
  • Little progress is likely to be made on clustering the work of the European Commission to overcome the arbitrary and dysfunctional separation of portfolios to accommodate 28 commissioners. Member states will block this kind of reform, which means the next High Representative will not have the benefit of more coherent structures. The EU’s foreign policy instruments will likely remain in many hands with co-ordination too loose to show real effects.
  •  Last but not least, the UK has moved one big step towards an exit, largely because of its government’s profound misreading of European politics and the interests of others, but also because of poor tactics. David Cameron’s claim to want to keep Britain in a reformed EU has lost most of its credibility, both at the Brussels summit table and, presumably, at home. The Tories left the EPP five years ago, and with the admission of the German Eurosceptic party AfD to their faction they have now burnt the bridge back to EPP. The Liberal Democrats would have to end their coalition with the Tories if their own position on Europe were to remain credible, which would put them at the risk of major defeat now and irrelevance later. Labour has chosen to watch over the mess and keep its statements on the issue vague. Jean-Claude Juncker’s election may turn out to have been the litmus test for British cohesion. Distance towards the EU could fail to keep the United Kingdom united, and could even provide the trigger for its breaking apart.

The EU’s institutional politics remain in a state of flux at a time of continuing internal challenges and new external ones. Both sets of challenges may help to limit the degree of confusion. After all, European integration has mostly taken place only under the pressures of circumstance; it has rarely been ahead of the curve, but it has mostly managed to stay on track. One pattern has not been broken by the revolution: the temptation of European politics to oversell its latest outcome. In this spirit, the Spitzenkandidaten revolution will go into the history books as a leap forward towards a more democratic and accountable Europe. And this assertion will remain as true as the contention that the Maastricht Treaty prepared the EU for major enlargement.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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