28 Januar 2020

Spitzenkandidaten System: A View from Tallinn

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: Piret Kuusik. (To the start of the series.)

“To fully engage with the Spitzenkandidaten system, national parties need influence in the European party groups. For small states it is difficult to make this happen.”
The selection of the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen demonstrated the blurred nature of the selection process. Though one thing is clear – the correct and set procedure for the selection of the President of the European Commission is still in the making.

To unwrap my thinking, I will first describe Estonia’s experience in the top-jobs election in May 2019. Followed by a couple of points of thought in regards to the Spitzenkandidaten process.

Estonia in the EU

In the EU, Estonia is defined by two aspects. First, it is a small country in geography, resources and institutional weight. Secondly, Estonia is part of the Nordic-Baltic region, where coordination and cooperation among the regional powers (the Nordic-Baltic 6: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Sweden) takes place daily. Together with the NB6, the format has a substantial weight in the EU, however not a blocking minority.

In the European Parliament, Estonia has six seats. Prior to the 2019 elections, the composition was the following: 3 ALDE, 1 EPP, 1 Social Democrat and 1 Greens. After the 2019 election: 3 Renew Europe, 2 Social Democrats, 1 Identity and Democracy Group. Estonia will gain one more seat after Brexit and this one will go to a candidate affiliated with EPP.

No Nordic-Baltic candidate

In the top-jobs selection, Estonia did not propose a candidate, though there was a moment where Estonian officials tested the waters for the former Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Digital Affairs Andrus Ansip. However, it did not bear any fruits.

Also, the Nordic-Baltic region did not rally behind a candidate either. Margrethe Vestager was the likeliest option, however, for reasons unknown to me, the region did not throw its weight behind her either. It is known that Dalia Grybauskaitė, former President of Lithuania, tried to rally support for her bid for the European Council President position. The Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas supported her; however, her candidacy did not fly high.

The quiet bystander

As a consequence, Estonia became an outsider to the process. Prime Minister Ratas had two principles in the selection: geographically balanced distribution of top-jobs and consensual decision-making. Indeed, not particularly original.

The Estonian delegation went to the decisive summit in Brussels on 30 June with the expectation that the “Osaka agreement” – in which Council President Donald Tusk and the governments of Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands had endorsed PES leading candidate Frans Timmermans as Commission president – would hold. PM Ratas spent a large chunk of his time in the designated room for the Estonian delegation, waiting for the bell that calls the Leaders to gather in the “egg” (the main conference room of the Council building). At times, he was convened to President Tusk’s office, however, for the purpose to get information or present Estonia’s point of view.

The Estonian delegation had to fly back to Tallinn on 1 July. For 2 July, they flew back. By that time, the candidate proposals had been made and the final decision-making went quickly and smoothly. However, PM Ratas had not been part of the group that rejected the Osaka deal, nor had he played a crucial role in the settlement that finally led to the nomination of von der Leyen.

What to make of it?

So, what to make of it? First, despite the European Parliament’s efforts to run the leading-candidate process, the European Council is the center of gravity in the institutional make-up. The Lisbon Treaty has given the European Council a central role, which has been further enhanced through recent crises. Thus, the starting point is that the European Council and the President of the European Commission must get along. A necessary relationship must be established, while the European Commission maintains its independency.

Therefore, the legitimacy of the European Commission, first and foremost, runs from the Council. The European Parliament brings along the citizens component through the confirmation process.

The EU is not a state

This leads me to my second point. Treating the EU like a state system and trying to convert it into one is incorrect. The EU is a system where peoples’, common European and national interests are finely balanced. The efforts to exclude national interests from the equation result in internal fighting, deadlocks and consequently in the EU’s irrelevance.

The problem of the current Spitzenkandidaten system is exactly that – it excludes national interests, meaning the Council. This is the primary reason why the lead-candidates process failed. Forcing the familiar nation-state system, where the government rises from the parliament, on the EU is dismissing the nature of the EU as a system of finely tuned interests among larger number of actors. It was only natural that the Council would protect its role and interests.

Procedural uncertainty harms the EU’s credibility

Now to my third point. The unclarity of the selection process reduces the credibility of the EU as a whole. How do I explain to a citizen how the President of European Commission is elected today? “The Treaty says one thing, but the practice is different” – is it an acceptable answer? How do you gather support and interest in the EU, when the answer to this question is “a bit of that and a bit of the other, but something third is also possible”?

I am worried that the prevalent “work in progress” attitude is going to harm the EU in the long run. Thanks to the unclarity, the messages given to the electorate prior to the elections were conflictual and not always correct. For example, in Estonia, the European Parliament elections were promoted as “European elections” and were built around the idea that people were electing a future for the EU and then the party lead candidate would be the executive of this vision. Well – what do you say to the electorate now? “It was the idea, but it did not pan out exactly that way. However, do go and vote in the next elections!”?

Equality among member states

Fourthly, when looking into the future, the conversation needs to start from the principle of equality among member states. The general trend of negotiations moving away from the discussion table is worrying to small and medium sized member states.

I here especially think of the agreement reached at the G20 Osaka meeting. President Emmanuel Macron, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Council President Donald Tusk, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez attended the G20 leaders meeting in Japan on 28-29 June 2019. The European leaders agreed there to support the candidacy of Frans Timmermans, the lead candidate of the Social Democrats. They returned to Brussels with the proposal, thinking that this is how things will run. To their surprise, many member states (and not only the Visegrád-4 countries Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia) did not agree and the plan was watered down.

However, what kind of political leadership and sense of collegiality does this example support? How is it acceptable that the decision is made by a small number of countries in an exclusive format (on the other side of the world) and then presented as a done deal in Brussels?

The European Council has 28 members and runs on the principle of “one state, one vote”. Equality of all member states is the oil that keeps the EU running. Bigger member states already have many of the advantages through their larger numbers of finance and personnel, their size and might that smaller member states lack. Hence, the “one state, one vote” principle ensures that there is an equal footing and collective action is pursued. This principle needs to be upheld.

Few parties can fully engage with the Spitzenkandidaten system

Finally, I think the Estonian experience that I described at the beginning illustrates well the differences in member states’ political engagement with the European level. Namely, there are few political parties and member states who have the capacity, knowledge and networks to pursue politics also at the European level.

The Spitzenkandidaten system is deeply intertwined with European political groups and Germany is a great example to illustrate how the CDU is both active in national politics and at the European level through the EPP. Similarly, President Macron’s party La République En Marche is tightly connected to Renew Europe. This is where the advantage of a bigger state comes to the fore. I contrast this with Estonia. As mentioned above, Estonia has 6 MEPs dispersed between European party groups. Let’s be honest – one does not buy much political leverage or influence in a European party group with 1-2 members.

In order to fully engage with the Spitzenkandidaten system, the national parties of a member state need to have close connections and influence in the European party groups in the European Parliament. However, for small states it is difficult to make this happen, because at the European Parliament there is no “one state, one vote” principle. It will be very hard to put forward a fitting lead-candidate or persuade the lead-candidate to consider the interests of the small states and their electorate.

Start with engaging the electorate with European level issues locally

Additionally, based on Estonia’s example, the European level politics seems still too far and somewhat unattainable. Political parties are not particularly interested in issues of common European interest and the connections between European party group and locally affiliated parties tend to be more nominal than real. This is not the fault of the European level alone: There is a great deal of work to be done from the local parties in connecting with the European party groups. But it is the reality and it needs to be taken into account. Not everybody in the EU function like Germany after all.

This is also the reason why I continue to be skeptical towards transnational pan-European party lists. The electorate does not make the connection between the local and European level parties, and thus the political landscape at the European level is unknown locally. Therefore, thrusting unfamiliar names on the electorate and asking them to make a democratic choice is unfair and undemocratic.

Fundamentally, there is no European polity, however much European politics buffs would like to see it. This needs to be taken into account and not seen as an annoying nuisance to be cast aside by scholars, politicians, bureaucrats and reformers. If one really wants to make Europe more democratic, then start with engaging the electorate with European level issues and politics locally. Then, one builds a ground for more visionary pan-European solutions for reforming the EU.

Piret Kuusik is Junior Research Fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute/International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn.
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: Tallinn, Vabaduse väljak: Scotch Mist [CC BY-SA], via Wikimedia Commons; portrait Piret Kuusik: Andres Teiss / ICDS [all rights reserved].

2 Kommentare:

  1. “The Treaty says one thing, but the practice is different”

    I'm not sure why this should be a problem. In fact, this is quite common in mature democracies. For example, this is the full extent of what the Dutch constitution says about the appointment of government ministers.

    Article 42
    1. The Government shall comprise the King and the Ministers.
    2. The Ministers, and not the King, shall be responsible for acts of

    Article 43
    The Prime Minister and the other Ministers shall be appointed and
    dismissed by Royal Decree.

    Over time, practice around these provisions has changed, and this is commonly understood by the King, the Ministers, all other political actors, and the (voting) public. Why should that be a problem?

  2. How is it acceptable that the decision is made by a small number of countries in an exclusive format (on the other side of the world) and then presented as a done deal in Brussels?

    As for this point, the author overlooks that the actors involved in the Osaka decision were, among the European Council membership, the political leaders of the three largest European political groups: EPP (Merkel), S&D (Sanchez), and Renew (Macron and Rutte). And that is what they tried to do: negotiate on behalf of their political groups. Unfortunately, Mrs. Merkel overestimated her ability to represent the EPP, so the deal failed. But that is not uncommon in politics.


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