Few processes reinforce the stereotype of the European Union as a half-baked political system quite like its selection of leading executives. This time around, the European Parliament will find the Council’s nominations for top jobs – including German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen for president of the Commission – particularly hard to swallow. The tussle that is sure to follow will highlight one of the fundamental structural challenges in European integration: bridging the gap between the perceived need for displays of political unity and the profound differences of opinion and purpose between member states. In these situations, the EU tends to oversell its deeds in a manner that leads to disappointment with the reality.
The Spitzenkandidaten process and the resulting bargaining over who will lead EU institutions fall into the same category. To begin with, the idea that several front runners compete to fill the top executive position on the Commission is outdated. It would have appeared plausible at a time when the two largest political families in the EU – the Christian democratic and conservative European People’s Party (EPP), and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – formed a majority coalition in the European Parliament. Until the European election in May, they had controlled the parliament since 1979, when the EU held its first direct elections. Spitzenkandidaten emerged from the last iteration of this traditional alliance, formed after the 2014 European election. Yet European leaders’ attempts to portray the process as strengthening democracy at the EU level came too late. In all likelihood, the rise in turnout in 2019 European election resulted from the tension between voters’ European and national loyalties – and not from the largest political families’ nomination of Spitzenkandidaten to lead their respective campaigns.
Spitzenkandidaten were an invention of key players in the European Parliament; nothing in the treaties obliges the European Council to accept them
Indeed, the election saw both groupings lose their traditional role in the European Parliament. To build a majority, they now need the support of other parties – all of which seem determined to avoid automatically endorsing the old order. As a consequence, the newly elected European Parliament was unable to agree on a common agenda to be pursued by a common nominee, which shifted the responsibility for doing so to the European Council. Accordingly, the former must nominate candidates for approval by the latter.
Among heads of state and government, the Spitzenkandidaten concept is controversial – to put it mildly. The Lisbon Treaty strengthened the role of the European Parliament and expanded the role of the European Council, while mandating that the latter take the results of the election into account when nominating candidates. This made the European Council – rather than the European Parliament – a more visible centre of political power and, in a way, the European Commission’s “boss”. Although it appears to suffer from its own internal disagreements over nominating leaders, the Council has used the occasion to demonstrate where true ownership of the EU lies.
In 2014 David Cameron, then British prime minister, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán vetoed the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as the nominee for Commission president, only for the other 26 heads of state and government to overrule him with their huge majority. In 2019 this was hardly an option, because any potential nominee would meet with substantial opposition. Thus, the first victim of this year’s post-election power struggle has been the process of automatically nominating the Spitzenkandidat of the largest faction in European Parliament as the nominee of the European Council.
For most voters, the battle over people and positions would be revealing if only it wasn’t so confusing. The intense public messaging and bargaining that surrounds the process serves to conceal rather than illuminate. Spitzenkandidaten were an invention of key players in the European Parliament; nothing in the treaties obliges the European Council to accept them (even if it has to take the elections result into consideration – which it evidently did). As such, it is misleading to frame this as an example of backroom politics prevailing over parliamentary democracy.
In reality, neither the democracy argument nor the required experience and qualifications determines who gets the job. Instead, it is the middle ground between the ambitions and objections of European leaders that does so. Multidimensional compromise and face-saving gestures are key to the process: the Spitzenkandidaten concept has been side-lined but still needs to be honoured somehow; pan-European political families may be less coherent than they once were, but the mood within them must be accounted for; and deepening divisions between member states need to be covered up. As in the British Parliament’s Brexit troubles, it has been much easier to see what would not be agreeable than what would.
After negotiations between the factions of the newly elected European Parliament did not produce a majority for any of the leading candidates, the European Council also initially failed to agree on nominations for the top jobs. France and Germany were pulling in different directions, EPP leaders were divided between insisting on the Spitzenkandidaten principle and a more flexible approach, and Liberal leaders sought to capitalise on the differences between their rivals.
A small group of European leaders held an informal meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit in Osaka to break the impasse by nominating the left-leaning Frans Timmermans for the European Commission presidency – thereby holding to the Spitzenkandidaten concept and allowing for the formation of a majority among governments and in the European Parliament. Yet this classic attempt at repackaging failed in the face of strident opposition from the Visegrád group (comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) and Italy. The former objected to the nomination of Timmermans and the western European bias in the proposal; the latter because there would be no longer be an Italian in any of the three most powerful jobs.
The fact that the compromise collapsed suggests that France and Germany do not dominate the EU’s decisions – nor do the broader western European circle
While German Chancellor Merkel did not plan the Osaka compromise, her handwriting was all over it. Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron, she did not rule out specific candidates. She emphasised that flexibility was essential to completing the nomination process. The fact that the compromise collapsed suggests that France and Germany do not dominate the EU’s decisions – nor do the broader western European circle of countries they traditionally consult on these matters, which includes Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Portugal.
However, the support of both France and Germany is still an indispensable part of any compromise. In the face of coordinated opposition, they saw the formal majority in the European Council attainable through the Osaka compromise as insufficient. The opposition of two large member states (Italy and Poland), a high-profile veto coalition comprising five countries, and the discontent of EPP leaders was too much to circumvent through qualified majority voting.
Ursula von der Leyen will surprise many of those who have supported her nomination
Merkel’s final nod to the Spitzenkandidaten concept was to demonstrate that Timmermans lacked the necessary support. This could only be done by offering a package that had him as nominee for heading the Commission, which required a shared understanding with the EPP’s Manfred Weber and the party’s chairman, Joseph Daul. After the Timmermans nomination was rejected, the bargaining advanced to the next round. Now, if the EPP was to name the new European Commission president, it needed another candidate. Von der Leyen certainly wasn’t part of Merkel’s master plan, but her nomination had the potential to work – in combination with that of the conservative Christine Lagarde, the socialist Josep Borrell, and the liberal Charles Michel. Other high-level positions for Timmermans and Danish politician Margrethe Vestager in the European Parliament or the European Commission would complete the picture. Interestingly, to block both Timmermans and Weber, the Visegrád group appears to have been willing to accept a group of exclusively western European leaders. The profoundly EU-sceptic leaders among them were not interested in being represented at a high level in a union they would like to roll back. This way, they could also continue to either criticise the EU for treating them as second-class, or denounce the bloc as an instrument of German hegemony.
It will be difficult for the European Parliament to block the appointment of someone who would be the first female president of the European Commission, while party discipline in the EPP, the S&D, and Renew Europe may do the rest in approving the nominations. If confirmed, von der Leyen will surprise many of those who have supported her nomination: she is a European federalist at heart, and not the hawkish defence minister she seemed to be in the eyes of eastern and central Europeans; her passion as president of the Commission will not be defence but integration writ large. Similarly, those who believe Lagarde will take orders from the Élysée Palace as president may find her to be the most “German” leader France has ever sent to the helm of the European Central Bank. Nonetheless, if parliament does not confirm von der Leyen’s appointment, European leaders will be forced to begin the process once again. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.