09 Dezember 2019

Resuscitating the lead candidates procedure: What can the Europarties do themselves?

The leading candidates procedure was meant to democratize the election of the EU Commission President, but it was never uncontroversial. Why did it fail in 2019? And how could it be reformed? In a series of guest articles, representatives from politics, academia and civil society answer to these question. Today: Gert-Jan Put. (To the start of the series.)

“Why did not a single Europarty undertake a serious attempt to organize a selection procedure that has the potential to substantially engage and excite European citizens?”
When supporters of the lead candidates procedure look back on the 2019 European election cycle, they will not be very satisfied with the outcome. The selection of Ursula von der Leyen, a non-Spitzenkandidat who had no role during the European election campaign and who was thus largely unknown to the broader European citizenry, begs many questions regarding the future of the procedure. Did the failure to select one of the lead candidates as the new Commission president result in its death? Or has the lead candidate procedure only gone into a deep coma, which implies that it simply needs a number of reforms to get resuscitated for future European elections?

The ongoing public debate gives some indications that the procedure is not completely off the table. During her opening statement for the European Parliament, Commission president von der Leyen herself announced that she wants “to work together to improve the Spitzenkandidaten system. We need to make it more visible to the wider electorate [...]”. Moreover, other practitioners and EU scholars have analyzed the flaws of the current system and proposed a number of reforms.

What can be done at a partisan level?

However, the largest part of the debate focuses on what can be done at the EU systemic level, which refers to the legal-institutional rules that are in place to appoint the Commission president. Inevitably, such a discussion often boils down to the institutional ‘division of labor’ between the European Parliament and the European Council, two central actors claiming the lead role in the appointment process.

This contribution will instead focus on what can be done at the EU partisan level, in other words by the political parties that are active in the European political arena. Indeed, the Europarties also play a crucial role in the procedure as they are required to organize internal selections to determine their lead candidate for the Commission presidency. These parties are free to design these internal processes as they see fit. What is often overlooked is that the nature of these intra-party contests can have important consequences for the public excitement, legitimacy and success of the lead candidates procedure more generally.

Designing an internal selection process: Why it matters

The 2014 elections were a landmark in the history of European political parties. For the very first time these organizations were required to take charge of a political recruitment process and put forward their own European wide lead candidate. The fact that Europarty elites were expected to develop a procedure from scratch should have been considered as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as they were not constrained by path dependency like national political parties typically are when recruiting their candidates and electoral leaders.

After all, Europarties could opt for any specific procedural design they wished for: limited or strict requirements for anyone who wanted to become the lead candidate; the decision-making could have been democratic (possibility of participation by a large group of people) or exclusive (dominated by a small group of people within the party); the decision-making could have been centralized (little influence of the member parties) or decentralized (a lot of influence of member parties); by using consensual decision or majority voting to choose the candidate.

At least within the context of national parties, the argument has been made time and again that these choices matter. It matters for the degree of competition between candidates in the selection process, for the profiles of the candidates that ultimately get selected, or the responsiveness of politicians to their party. Even more importantly for European elections, it matters for the general public’s perception of the election process. Democratically organized selections can lead to citizens being more politically trusting and satisfied with the way democracy works. What’s more, when parties organize democratic procedures the media attention grows, leading to more visibility and legitimacy for the entire process. In this sense, by instrumentalizing their selections the Europarties can make it more difficult – for the European Council – to side-step the lead candidates procedure.

The limited imagination of Europarties in 2014 and 2019

In order to challenge the European Council’s tendency to downplay the role of lead candidates in the appointment of the Commission president, Europarties should have implemented an open procedure such as primary selections. This selection procedure could have invited a broader group of European citizens to get more involved in the European electoral process, to inform themselves – directly via communication of the parties or indirectly via the increased media attention – about the alternative political visions of the different European parties.

In practice, however, European parties have not really experimented a lot with procedural openness to leverage attention for their internal contests and lead candidates. In 2014, time constraints forced parties to copy-paste existing procedures that were internally applied to select their party leadership. In fact, four out of five Europarties (EPP, PES, ALDE and EL) that appointed a lead candidate used a delegate system where each member party was allowed to appoint a weighted number of delegates for the electoral congress. Only the EGP launched a more ambitious approach and organized an online Green primary with voting rights for all EU citizens above the age of 16.

In 2019, even the EGP abandoned the idea of an open contest and largely mimicked the other Europarties’ procedures: selection at a large electoral congress where national member party delegates gathered to decide on the new lead candidate. While the EL even made its procedure more exclusive by moving away from a delegate selection to selection by the party’s executive board, the EPP, PES and ALDE held on to the selection via delegates that was already in place five years before. It seems that the design of the 2014 internal practices was ‘sticky’, even though these procedures had been developed ad hoc and on extremely short notice before those elections.

The EGP open online primary as a ‘failed experiment’

Why did not a single Europarty undertake a serious attempt to organize a selection procedure that has the potential to substantially engage and excite European citizens? There are, of course, negative consequences and pitfalls when organizing open recruitment contests via primaries. First, parties might appear internally divided if multiple candidates openly battle for the position of the lead candidate. Nevertheless, more political competition can help raise the stakes of the EP election and the public awareness for the lead candidates. Second, organizing primaries takes a longer time and can be more costly for the European party organizations than, for instance, inviting delegates to an electoral congress or letting the party leadership decide.

But more importantly, the well informed critic will argue against the primary idea based on the failed experiment of the EGP in 2014. The European Greens already organized an open online primary back then, which did not engage a very large group of European citizens. With a turnout of less than 23.000 participants, the interest of the general public seemed rather limited. Several factors add to this disappointing outcome: the party had to organize this primary on relatively short notice, it was highly experimental as even today the idea of an online election is not a given, and it was also the first time that lead candidates were introduced for the European elections, a concept which was not well known to the wider audience.

Last but not least, the procedural design itself perhaps contributed the most to the primary’s failure. The EGP organized a pan-European selection, whereas not even the EP elections are organized at the pan-European level. Instead, EP elections are in fact organized over 28 different member states. For a primary selection process to work, the Europarties rely on their member parties to engage the national public to participate, aligning the process with national political agendas and election cycles (i.e. EP elections are often organized concurrently with elections for other governance levels). Another problem is that Europarties do not have members in the same way as national party organizations do, which makes it impossible to organize member primaries in exactly the same way as national parties.

What kind of procedure do the Europarties need, then?

A potential solution is the organization of a closed primary with a greater role for member parties as intermediaries in the procedure. First, it is up to these member parties to internally encourage their top candidates to participate in such a primary contest and take their campaign efforts seriously. Indeed, a set of ‘worthy’ and publicly active lead candidates raises the stakes, leads to higher candidate recognition among voters and more public engagement for the European election.

Second, after nominating a set of high-level potential lead candidates, the Europarties can call on their member parties to organize member primaries within their own organizational machineries, granting voting rights only to individual members of the member parties. Again, as EP elections are often organized concurrently with other elections, these primaries can even take place simultaneously with the selection processes organized to selected candidates for those other elections.

At least the timing seems feasible: the majority of the Europarties already nominated their lead candidate more than six months before European election day, which allows member parties to coordinate and align with potentially other ongoing selection processes. Moreover, such a more decentralized and vertically integrated approach allows Europarties to pass on at least part of the resource burden of organizing a primary contest to their member parties.

Granted, some of these national parties will appear reluctant to do so. But surely we can expect those parties in favor of a stronger European dimension in European Parliament elections to take up their responsibility?

Gert-Jan Put is a post-doctoral researcher at KU Leuven. His research interests include intra-party competition, candidate selection and electoral systems.
Reform of the leading candidates procedure – overview

  1. Reform des Spitzenkandidaten-Verfahrens: Serienauftakt
  2. Für eine Direktwahl des Kommissionspräsidenten und ein neues Europawahlrecht: Wege und Irrwege der Demokratie in der EU ● Frank Decker
  3. Noch nicht ausgemustert: Gezielte Reformen können das Spitzenkandidaten-Verfahren wieder erfolgreich machen ● Julian Rappold
  4. Die Europawahl darf keine Wundertüte sein: Für eine rechtliche Verankerung des Spitzenkandidaten-Prinzips ● Gaby Bischoff
  5. Resuscitating the lead candidates procedure: What can the Europarties do themselves? [EN / DE] ● Gert-Jan Put
  6. Spitzenkandidaten System: A View from Tallinn [EN / DE] ● Piret Kuusik
  7. Savoir qui fera quoi : Les listes transnationales peuvent sauver le système des « Spitzenkandidaten » [FR / DE] ● Charles Goerens
  8. Das Polarisierungsdilemma: Streit zwischen den Parteien belebte 2019 den Europawahlkampf – und ließ dann die Spitzenkandidaten scheitern ● Manuel Müller

Pictures: EPP nominating congress in Helsinki: European People's Party [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; portrait Gert-Jan Put: private [all rights reserved].

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