27 März 2024

The median EU lead candidate in 2024 is an MEP, male, and from Germany

By Manuel Müller
Ursula von der Leyen and Nicolas Schmit
Duel of the lead candidates 2024: Commission versus Commission, woman versus man – and, once again, Germany versus Luxembourg.

The primary season for the 2024 European elections is over: All European parties (except the ECR) have held their party conferences, adopted their programmes and nominated their lead candidates. This allows us to make some preliminary observations on the state of European democracy before the real election campaign begins.

Perhaps the most important of these is that the lead candidate system, which had already been declared dead five years ago, is still alive and kicking. For 2024, more European parties and groups have put forward candidates than ever before. The conservative EPP, the social-democratic PES, the Greens and the Left are back, of course, as are smaller parties such as the Pirates, the regionalist EFA and the Christian ECPM. Even the liberal Renew group, which had repeatedly expressed doubts about the process, ended up with a lead team of three candidates. And even the far-right ID group wants to have a face in this year’s election campaign – although it stresses that its candidate is not running for the post of Commission president, whose nomination it believes is a prerogative of the national leaders, not the European voters.

But who are the new lead candidates? Where were they politically socialised, in which institutions did they make their careers? And how are they distributed in terms of gender and national origin?

2014: mostly MEPs running

Already in the 2014 European elections, when the parties put forward candidates for the Commission presidency for the first time, an interesting pattern could be observed in the nominations. Unlike all Commission presidents since the 1970s, who had previously held a major national government post, the lead candidates were mainly politicians who had made their careers in the European Parliament: for example, the president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz (SPD/PES), Green MEPs Ska Keller (Greens/EGP) and José Bové (EELV/EGP), or the leader of the liberal group Guy Verhofstadt (Open-VLD/ALDE), although the latter had previously also been Belgian prime minister.

The big exception was the EPP lead candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker (CSV/EPP), who had been prime minister of Luxembourg for many years before losing a national election in autumn 2013. However, Juncker, of all people, was also the most successful European candidate: in 2014, he first won the EPP’s internal primary against then single market commissioner Michel Barnier (LR/EPP), and went on to win also the European elections and the Commission presidency.

2019: Weber fails, also due to lack of government experience

Nevertheless, in the 2019 European elections, all the main lead candidates came again from the EU institutions. In the duel between the major parties, EPP group leader Manfred Weber (CSU/EPP) stood against Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans (PvdA/PES). Most smaller parties also sent MEPs (Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout for the Greens, Jan Zahradil for the ECR) or commissioners (Margrethe Vestager as the best-known face of the ALDE top team) into the race.

Hardly any of them had any experience of national government; Weber, in particular, had never been a member of any executive body. After the election, some of the national leaders in the European Council used this as an argument for rejecting him as Commission president. Instead, they nominated Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP) – a national minister whose main experience in European politics until that time had been growing up in Brussels as the daughter of an EC official.

2024: Commissioners, MEPs and outsiders

Institutionelle Herkunft der Spitzenkandidat:innen

In 2024, the pattern is confirmed once again: the lead candidates of the European parties are mainly members of the supranational EU institutions, i.e. the Commission and the European Parliament. A closer look reveals an interesting three-way split:

  • The two largest parties, the only ones with a realistic chance of winning the election, are both backing members of the European Commission: incumbent Commission president von der Leyen is being challenged by her employment commissioner, Nicolas Schmit (LSAP/PES). Both von der Leyen and Schmit have many years of executive experience at national and European level, so the European Council cannot use this issue as an excuse to reject them.
  • In the smaller parties, being a lead candidate means mainly an opportunity to make a name for oneself in order to obtain an important role in the Parliament. Accordingly, the lead candidates are mainly MEPs – Terry Reintke (Greens/EGP) and Bas Eickhout (GroenLinks/EGP) for the Greens, Anders Vistisen (DF/–) for the ID and Marcel Kolaja (Piráti/PPEU) for the Pirates. The European Liberals’ top trio consists of two MEPs, Valérie Hayer (RE/–) and Sandro Gozi (IV/EDP), as well as the German national MP Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP/ALDE), who, however, will switch to the European Parliament after the elections. Of these, only Gozi, who was previously Italy’s secretary of state for European affairs, has government experience.
  • Finally, the other lead candidates don’t currently hold any relevant electoral positions. The European Left (Walter Baier, KPÖ/EL) and the European Christian Political Movement (Valeriu Ghilețchi, –/ECPB) have both nominated their respective party chairs. The regionalist EFA has nominated Maylis Roßberg (SSW/EFA, an assistent of the party’s group in the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament) and Raül Romeva (ERC/EFA, a former MEP and Catalan minister). The European Pirates’ second lead candidate, Anja Hirschel (Piraten/PPEU), is a city councillor in Ulm. What all these candidates all have in common is that their chances of winning a seat in the election are very slim; Romeva cannot be elected at all due to a court sentence for sedition and embezzlement. For them, being the lead candidate is therefore mainly a chance to gain media attention.

Meanwhile, there are once again no members of any national government among the lead candidates. Especially among the Social Democrats and the Liberals, several prominent (ex-)leaders – such as Sanna Marin (SDP/PES) from Finland, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE/PES) from Spain and Kaja Kallas (RE/ALDE) from Estonia – have declined to stand. It seems that there is still a long way to go from the national capitals to the Brussels parties.

First female single lead candidate

Geschlechterverteilung der Spitzenkandidat:innen

In terms of gender balance, there has been some evolution in the lead candidates. In the 2014 and 2019 EPP and PES primaries, only men stood for the Commission presidency. And even among the smaller parties, none put forward a woman without a male partner: The Greens (in 2014 and 2019), the Pirates (in 2014) and the Left (in 2019) each nominated a mixed double as lead candidates; and the Liberals ran with a team of five women and two men in 2019.

In 2019, this male dominance worked to the detriment of the lead candidate system. When the European Council nominated von der Leyen as a counter-candidate, several progressive parties saw this not only as a threat to the lead candidates, but also as a historic opportunity to elect the first female Commission president.

In 2024, von der Leyen is now also the first female individual lead candidate. But the gender ratio has become somewhat more balanced alsso among the other parties: With the Greens, the EFA and the Pirates, three parties are running with a mixed double this time, and the RE group has a team of two women and one man. The PES, Left, ECPM and ID have male single candidates.

National imbalances

Europakarte mit Herkunftsverteilung der Spitzenkandidat:innen

But while the gender balance is slowly improving, the lead candidates’ distribution by national origin remains alarmingly uneven. This is particularly striking in the case of the EPP and PES: In the top duel between the two largest parties, a candidate from Germany (Schulz, Weber, von der Leyen) and a candidate from a Benelux country (Juncker, Timmermans, Schmit) will be facing each other for the third time in a row.

However, a similar pattern can also be seen among the smaller parties. Overall, the 2024 European elections will be contested by:

  • five lead candidates from Germany (von der Leyen, Strack-Zimmermann, Reintke, Roßberg, Hirschel),
  • four lead candidates from one of the five other EC founding countries (Schmit, Hayer, Gozi, Eickhout),
  • three lead candidates from one of the eight other “old” member states, i.e. those who joined before 2004 (Romeva, Baier, Vistisen)
  • two lead candidates from one of the thirteen “new” member states that joined since 2004 (Kolaja, Ghilețchi).

This ratio of 5:4:3:2 is even more unbalanced than in 2014 (2:3:3:0) and 2019 (3:5:3:4, without the liberal team: 2:3:1:2). The often-heard claim that the European lead candidates system is a “German invention” is obviously nonsense – similar procedures exist at national level almost everywhere in Europe. However, it is true that there is a national imbalance among the candidates themselves and that candidates from Germany and other EC founding states are much more likely to be selected than those from the Central and Eastern European countries.

Size matters, transnational networking matters even more

This imbalance has various reasons. There are, of course, a particularly large number of seats up for grabs in the European elections in Germany, so it is important for European parties to be visible there. At the same time, the German delegations within the European parties and political groups are usually very strong, which gives German candidates an advantage in intra-party primaries.

However, the notable success of Benelux candidates shows that it is not size alone that matters. Another important factor could be that the idea of a European (party) democracy has a longer tradition in Western Europe. In addition, the public in these countries reacted with somewhat greater interest in the lead candidates from the outset: For example, in addition to the Europe-wide lead candidate debates, the German television also broadcasted separate German-language duels between Juncker and Schulz in 2014 and Weber and Timmermans in 2019.

As a result, there seems to be a greater awareness among politicians in the “old” member states that engaging in transnational party politics can help to promote their own careers. As mentioned above, both the European Socialists and the Liberals have had some difficulty finding suitable candidates in recent months – until a Luxembourger (Schmit) and a German (Strack-Zimmermann) stepped up again in the end. Neither of them had previously been known as European political heavyweights, but while other potential candidates waved them off, they seized the opportunity presented to them with the lead candidacy.

The risk of a geographical split in the EU

It is obvious that this geographical imbalance will lead to problems in the long term. The last European elections already showed that it was in their own country where the EU lead candidates had the greatest influence on the public debate (and the election result). In the worst case, there is a danger that the EU will split into two spheres in the way it deals with European parties and their lead candidates: on the one hand, an upward spiral of greater commitment on the part of individual politicians, growing media attention and increased public acceptance and legitimacy of the European parties in Germany and the “old” member states – on the other hand, a downward spiral of lack of interest, lack of identification, feelings of discrimination and a focus on intergovernmental procedures and posts to be allocated by the European Council in the “new” countries.

To avoid this split, European parties urgently need to become more transnational in the future and, in particular, to better integrate their Central and Eastern European member parties – not least with the aim of making politicians from the “new” member states realise that involvement in European party politics can be an opportunity to sharpen their individual profiles and pursue a supranational career.

Off to the election campaign!

First of all, however, it is now time that the lead candidates who have been nominated this year present themselves on the campaign trail, explain their political differences and show the public what is at stake in this election. The starting conditions for this are better than in the past: surveys in several countries (see here, here and here) indicate an increased public interest in the European elections.

But the campaign will only be a full success for European democracy if this interest can also be translated into more attention for the future European leaders and key issues. On 29 April, the first debate between the lead candidates will take place; it can be watched across Europe via webstream.

Update, 8 April 2024: After the publication of this article, Volt Europa has also nominated a lead candidate duo for the 2024 election: Damian Boeselager from Germany and Sophie in ’t Veld from the Netherlands, both currently members of the European Parliament.

Pictures: Schmit and von der Leyen: EC Audiovisual Service 2022, photographer: Dati Bendo [Commission reuse policy], via European Commission; graphs: Manuel Müller, based on: gender icons: VectorPortal, Europe map: d-maps.com [license].
Correction note, 24 April: An earlier version of this article stated that ECPB lead candidate Valeriu Ghilețchi has Moldovan citizenship only. In fact, Ghilețchi has both Moldovan and Romanian citizenship, and is therefore an EU citizen. The error has been corrected throughout the article.

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