If European elections — over 4 days, across 28 member states, and with over 400 million eligible voters — already seem like a complex operation, certain uniquely European aspects, like the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, can only make it seem more complicated.
This long German word essentially means “lead candidate,” and refers to a system in which the European political groups put forward one candidate to lead their list of candidates. This makes the Spitzenkandidat something of the “face” of a political group’s campaign.
The Spitzenkandidat is also meant to represent a European political group’s choice for the next President of the European Commission, to take the place of Jean-Claude Juncker when he steps down this autumn. In theory, the European political group who wins enough seats in the European Parliament to form a governing coalition would have their Spitzenkandidat become the next President of the European Commission, provided that he or she is approved by the European Council.
Juncker was the first European Commission president to be elected in this way, as the Spitzenkandidat for the European People’s Party political group in 2014. He may also be the last, however, since not all EU leaders are agreed that the system should continue.
French President Emmanuel Macron is one of the recent leaders to suggest he would not support the approach, saying at a news conference in Sibiu, Romania, on May 9, that he didn’t “feel bound at all by the principle of Spitzenkandidat.” Macron was joined by Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel in showing some doubt about the system.
As it stands, complex negotiations over the replacements in 2019 of the presidencies of the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament, as well as the EU’s foreign affairs chief and the head of the European Central Bank, are likely to trump the Spitzenkandidaten system. Current European Council President Donald Tusk told EU leaders in Sibiu that he would summon them to a special summit on May 28, two days after the end of European Elections, to begin negotiating how to distribute the EU’s top positions.
Even if the Spitzenkandidaten system does not promise to be a sure road to the European Commission presidency, several political groups have still put forward their lead candidates. Among them is notably German MEP Manfred Weber for the European People’s Party political group, expected to maintain its position as the group with the most seats, and current First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for the Socialists and Democrats political group.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), however, criticized the system and refused to put forward a single lead candidate, instead putting several candidates forward, including Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister.
“People cannot directly elect the Spitzenkandidat,” Verhoftstadt said in a televised candidates’ debate earlier this month. “Most of you cannot vote for the candidates here on this stage,” the ALDE leader said to explain his group’s criticism of the system.
At the same time, other figures are tipped to be possible choices for the presidency of the European Commission, including Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator. In his job at the Brexit negotiating table, the French national has received unprecedented support from leaders of the 27 EU member states without the United Kingdom.
What is clear is that until the dust has settled not only on the elections, but also on high stakes negotiations among the European Union’s top leaders, the future of the Spitzenkandidaten system will be left as an open question. Until then, the Spitzenkandidaten are leading to an uncertain European future, in elections that promise to see Europe shift with the times.