04 Mai 2023

The Spitzenkandidaten dilemmas: A successful failure?

By Eva Heidbreder
Jean-Claude Juncker and Ursula von der Leyen
“Both rounds of Spitzenkandidaten in action showed a high level of inter-institutional conflict – followed by institutional re-balancing after the election.”

The democratic credentials of the governance of the European Union have been called into question time and again. At the heart of the issue is the question of what kind of political system the EU is and, just as importantly, should be. The European Parliament’s (EP) introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten (leading-candidates) in the 2014 elections puts a specific spotlight on the competing ideas about the EU’s democratic principles.

As the Spitzenkandidaten were explicitly introduced to increase the democratic voice of citizens in the EU, this contribution asks whether the system can deliver on this promise. The lessons we can draw from the only two rounds of Spitzenkandidaten-led EP elections cast doubt on the potential and the delivery of the system if it is not embedded in a broader process of EU party-building.

Democratic models for the EU: Why propose a Spitzenkandidat?  

In order to assess the democratising effect of the Spitzenkandidaten system, we need to place it in the specific context of the EU polity. The EU is based on a system of dual democracy (see e.g. von Bogdandy 2007:37), i.e. legitimacy through elected national governments and the directly elected EP. The aggregated interests of national and EU-wide electorates are represented in a power-sharing system in which EU-level institutions represent specific electorates.

Majone uses a useful image for this when he depicts the core institutions as estates representing different interests: the Council representing the will of the states, the EP representing the will of the people in the EU, and the Commission –  initiator but no co-decision-maker of EU legislation – representing the common interests of the EU (Majone 2002). For the system to work, powers are not separated but shared by the institutions that ensure that all interests are considered qua veto powers. At the same time, the checks and balances between the institutions ensure mutual control over the use of powers, which was prominently exercised when the EP triggered the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999.

Challenging the principle of dual legitimacy

The Spitzenkandidaten system challenges some of the defining features of this system and thus the principle of dual legitimacy. Instead, it implies a more coherent single logic of direct legitimation.

Two points of criticism against the ideal of the dual legitimacy logic are crucial. First, the impartial role of the Commission, which suggests political independence, is questioned in theory and in practice, given the Commission’s obvious and inevitable political influence  (Follesdal and Hix 2006). Second, in practice, voters have consistently used EP elections to send messages to national politicians, meaning that the second essential legitimation channel of direct elections remains underdeveloped (Hix and Marsh 2011).

The Spitzenkandidaten system responds to both problems: It makes EP elections more EU-focused through the personalisation of Spitzenkandidaten who campaign on EU-wide party-political agendas, and by making at least the selection of the Commission president an electoral choice, thus moving it from a logic of dual to a logic of single, direct legitimacy.

Possible unintended effects

While the rationale behind the Spitzenkandidaten system indicates its intended effects, the juxtaposition of predominantly dual and predominantly single legitimacy procedures for the selection of the Commission president also points to a number of possible unintended effects.

  • First, the possibility that a Spitzenkandidat, once in office, does not deliver on the party’s programme means that he or she may end up de-legitimising the whole process because campaigns are not matched by delivery.
  • Second, given the EU’s institutional set-up, if party politics were to become dominant, this could undermine the ambition of inter-institutional scrutiny, in particular the EP’s control function over the Commission.
  • Third, assuming that inter-institutional competition remains dominant, we can expect that the EP’s unilateral move to read the Spitzenkandidaten system into the Lisbon treaty will lead to open inter-institutional conflict, creating blockages and stalemates in decision-making rather than a transformation from a dual to a single legitimation logic (Bartolini and Hix 2006).

The next section empirically examines which of these intended and unintended effects have been observed so far.

Spitzenkandidaten in action: 2014 and 2019 compared

While in 2014 the EP succeeded in appointing the winning Spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the Commission, in 2019 the European Council succeeded in appointing Ursula von der Leyen, who had not stood as Spitzenkandidat in the elections. To which extent do we see unintended and intended effects?

Both cases show high levels of inter-institutional conflict over the actual appointment of the Commission president. However, the conflict between the Council and the EP did not lead to a total stalemate but, interestingly, to different outcomes. The core conflict revolves around the interpretation of Article 17(7) of the EU Treaty, which obliges the European Council to “[take] into account the elections to the European Parliament” when proposing the Commission president. While the European Council reads this as a continuation of the previous practice, according to which the European Council proposes a candidate from the strongest party group in the EP, the EP’s interpretation is that it means that the party-selected Spitzenkandidaten compete directly for the office of the Commission president.

In 2014, the heads of state and government eventually gave in and nominated the Spitzenkandidat from the winning party family. In 2019, however, they appointed a person who had never been a Spitzenkandidat. Immediately after the elections, it was fairly unclear in both rounds if a Spitzenkandidat would take office – and it remains unclear which institution will dominate in 2024, as the two interpretations continue to compete in an uncertain institutional environment.

Internal coherence and timing are crucial

However, we can already identify conditions that increase the likelihood of success (Heidbreder and Schade 2020b, 2020a; Crum 2022; Gómez and Reiners 2019). Two resources for exercising power in inter-institutional conflict stand out: intra-institutional coherence and timing.

In 2014, all major party groups in the EP immediately supported the winning Spitzenkandidat. In 2019, by contrast, although Manfred Weber’s group had obtained the most seats in the elections, he was not embraced as the EP’s univocal choice. Instead, the parties argued that a candidate should be nominated through a coalition-building process within the EP. The EP thus did not enter the inter-institutional competition as a unitary actor.

Conversely, while the European Council had no alternative candidate immediately after the EP announced Juncker in 2014, it managed to create intra-institutional agreement in 2019 and presented von der Leyen to a still divided EP. In both cases, the first mover had a decisive strategic advantage by presenting a candidate and framing the competition according to the privileged logic of legitimation, which put decisive pressure on the competing institution. Thus, it was difficult for the European Council in 2014 to rebut the claim, especially in German public opinion, that an elected candidate should not be legitimate, just as it was difficult for the EP in 2019 to rebut the argument that there was a more suitable candidate than the one it did not unilaterally support. 

Institutional re-balancing

Which of the possible unintended effects do we see? Empirically, I focus on the coherence between party-political and institutional agendas and the agendas of the Commission president. Surprisingly, we find that the political agendas of incoming Commission presidents were more concerned with institutional than with party-political demands. However, the candidates appointed did not primarily respond to the institution that had won the inter-institutional conflict.

In 2014, “immediately after the proposal of Juncker as the Commission President by the European Parliament, the European Council advanced a detailed programme for the new Commission – ‘The Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Changes’ – which set some policy priorities for the EU in the next 5 years and tasked the forthcoming European Commission to implement it” (Goldoni 2016:287). Juncker maintained this general line throughout his term, so that “the relationship between the European Council and the European Commission in legislative agenda setting in high profile cases can be best characterized as one of ‘competitive co-operation’” (Bocquillon and Dobbels 2014:34).

Conversely, when von der Leyen presented her agenda to gain support in the EP in 2019, she took into account the main objectives of the EP and specific party groups (European Commission et al. 2019). In contrast to Juncker’s ‘competitive co-operation’ with the European Council, the direct relationship between von der Leyen and the permanent Council president Charles Michel deteriorated over time, leading the journal POLITICO to judge that the presidents’ “dysfunctional partnership is not only impacting the EU’s legislative and political agenda, which depends on a delicate inter-institutional balancing act. It’s also threatening to undermine the EU’s standing in the world” (Lynch 2022).

Despite the very limited empirical evidence, the two cases do not show a dominance of cross-institutional party or institutional alliances. Rather, we observe the opposite: the EP-selected president leans towards the interests of the European Council and the candidate selected by the European Council tends towards those of the EP. While inter-institutional conflict dominates the nomination process, a strong rebalancing takes place afterwards. Rather than a stalemate or a shift of power towards one dominant institution, after both elections there is a re-balancing of power between the three institutions to re-establish the inter-institutional power sharing between the Council, the EP and the Commission.

Institutional conflict and rebalancing undermine party politicisation

Finally, have the intended effects been achieved? With only two rounds of Spitzenkandidaten in action, the results seem mixed at best. While there is some evidence that voters’ perceptions are shifting slightly, on the whole the second-order effect is still dominant (de Wilde 2020:47). Nevertheless, it is plausible that more rounds are needed to have a truly significant effect.  

More importantly, the effects of institutional conflict and balancing mechanisms outlined above undermine party-political politicisation in principle, which casts doubt on the potential of the system in general. In order to successfully appoint a Spitzenkandidat, the parties in the EP have to unite behind a winning Spitzenkandidat and thus ignore party politics in order to install a Spitzenkandidat as Commission president. As a singular instrument, the system thus suffers from a number of dilemmas that cannot be overcome without additional or alternative instruments that further change the existing dominant model of dual legitimacy.

An ongoing dispute over key constitutional rules

The Spitzenkandidaten system was introduced to focus voters’ attention on genuine EU policy concerns and to legitimise the appointment of the Commission president more directly. The two rounds of Spitzenkandidat appointments have not resolved the underlying institutional dispute over the interpretation of the EU Treaty, which is essentially a battle to move the EU polity one step closer to a single legitimising logic in which citizens express democratic choices directly at the EU level.

In fact, in the spring of 2023, it is completely open who will win an inter-institutional battle after the upcoming elections in 2024. This in itself is remarkable, as we are witnessing an ongoing and still unresolved dispute over the key constitutional rules on which the EU is based. At its core, this dispute is about institutional power and the redistribution of powers.

The dilemma of the EU Spitzenkandidaten for the EU

As long as competing interpretations of the Treaty of Lisbon persist, intra-institutional coherence and strategic timing will be most important to win the institutional conflict between the EP and the European Council.

In this situation, the Spitzenkandidaten system faces a dilemma (Müller 2020): the more successful the Spitzenkandidaten are in politicising the elections and the more they succeed in shifting electoral attention to genuine EU politics, the more important it becomes for a winning candidate to get into office, and thus the more urgent it becomes for competing parties to abandon their political claims in order to act as a coherent institutional actor after the elections.

The dilemmas of party-political politicisation in the EU

We can envisage two ways out of this dilemma which, however, pose other major challenges. The first option is a much stronger party-political alignment that would create partisan bonds across EU institutions and between the Europarties and their constituent national parties to ensure that electoral promises are kept during the electoral term. However, this solution creates dilemmas on its own: If it succeeds, both the checks and balances and the power sharing between the EU institutions will, in principle, be abolished and the legislative process of the EU as such will be hampered. The bigger dilemma, however, is that the national parties that make up the Europarties would have to partially disempower themselves in order to follow a coherent EU-wide party-political line. It seems virtually impossible to create such a comprehensive party-political coherence in the EU system.

The alternative option – or threat – is the gradual decoupling of the Europarties from their national party bases and the creation of genuine, independent Europarties. The competing views on EU-wide electoral lists show the dilemma – or the intended higher objective – of this additional instrument for creating EU party politics: A truly decoupled, independent Europarty system does not fit the dual legitimation logic; it can only be fully established and functioning if the EU polity is transformed into a system with a single, direct legitimacy base – which is difficult to achieve under the dominant rules of the existing dual legitimation system.

It needs more than a Spitzenkandidat

The dual legitimacy structure of the EU and the inherent dilemmas that prevent the Spitzenkandidaten system from achieving its intended effects explain why the politicisation of EP elections does not lead to inter-institutional blockades: The Spitzenkandidaten system alone cannot promote party ties strong enough to replace the inter-institutional balancing mechanisms. In turn, these balancing mechanisms explain why the intense inter-institutional conflict over the Spitzenkandidaten has not led to stalemate or legislative blockades.

In sum, at least so far we do not see a strengthening of cross-institutional party-political alliances. Introducing Spitzenkandidaten to the EP elections has delivered far less than expected, both in terms of intended and unintended effects. The Spitzenkandidaten system has led to more institutional competition during the selection process of the Commission president – and to a subsequent inter-institutional re-balancing to allow for continued everyday power-sharing between the institutions.

Eva G. Heidbreder is Professor for Multilevel Governance in Europe at the Otto von Guericke Universität Magdeburg and holds a Jean Monnet Chair.

This contribution draws intensely on previous and upcoming academic publications, in particular Heidbreder and Auracher 2015; Heidbreder and Schade 2020a, Heidbreder and Schade 2020b as well as Heidbreder and Schade, “Interinstitutional conflict in the context of leadership appointment of the Commission”, in: M. Ceron, T. Christiansen, D. G. Dimitrakopoulos (Hrsg.): Beyond Spitzenkandidaten? The Politicization of Leadership Selection in the European Union, Palgrave 2023 (forthcoming).

This contribution is part of the thematic forum “Supranational governance between diplomacy and democracy – current debates on EU reform”, published in cooperation with the online magazine Regierungsforschung.de.

Pictures: Jean-Claude Juncker and Ursula von der Leyen: European Union, 2019 [licensing conditions], via EC - Audiovisual Service; portrait Eva Heidbreder: Hoffotografen [all rights reserved]; EU flag: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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