The Spitzenkandidaten system was meant to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament. But that wasn’t why more citizens voted in May.
The democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament is often questioned. It is not comparable to ‘normal’ national parliaments and is all the time trying to strengthen its legitimacy. The most striking problem is that the ‘one (wo)man, one vote’ principle is not respected. There is no pragmatic solution to this problem, as full respect would mean a parliament with several thousand members. So other ways are being explored to increase democratic legitimacy.
Two ideas are strongly defended by the ‘insiders’: the system of Spitzenkandidaten (for the post of president of the European Commission) and transnational lists. Both are inspired by good intentions but do not really increase democratic legitimacy—on the contrary. The two recent Spitzenkandidaten of the largest groups—Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists) and Manfred Weber (European People’s Party)—were on the voting list respectively in the Netherlands (17 million inhabitants) and Germany, though not Germany as a whole but one of the 16 Länder, Bavaria (13 million). In other words, more than 90 per cent of European citizens were not able to participate in the election of the European Spitzenkandidat.
So why does the Brussels bubble defend the system so vigorously? The defence is based on the ideological assumption that one is a good, or better, European if one supports the idea. For the two biggest European political parties, however, the Christian-Democratic EPP and the social-democratic PES, the reasoning is obvious: the duopoly of a division of power between the two parties would thus be eternalised.
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For the Greens and for the Left, equally, to defend such a system is against their own interests. Both the latter have consumed much energy imposing the Spitzenkandidat system—instead of fighting for something substantial and ambitious, in terms of combating climate change or making progress towards a Social Europe.
The other idea to enhance legitimacy is to add transnational lists to the national ones. It is not clear whether all parties would have an additional transnational list but this idea is not in any event much better from a democratic perspective.
A big majority of European citizens go to vote when they are called to do so for the city council, the regional body or the national assembly. For years the European level was however treated as a stepchild—a ‘second-order’ election, as the political scientists put it—and the participation rate was in decline. Now, in the context of global tensions, trade war and in particular the erosion of the European Union, the mass of citizens went to vote in May to strengthen Europe in a dangerous environment and to say no to anti-European forces.
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The Brussels insiders have misunderstood this increase in participation, as linked to the Spitzenkandidat idea—though outside the bubble nobody even takes note of this weird debate. But the European Parliament is collectively on the Spitzenkandidat path, path-dependency being stronger than political will and convincing arguments. The idea has become the mantra nobody dares attack.
A step in the right direction would be to reflect anew on how European citizens could gain influence over the choice of commission president. A profound reform of the European Union—and perhaps its electoral system to make it more European, less centred on national issues—is needed, but the Spitzenkandidat system is not part of the solution.
The transnational lists would cover all EU member states. A candidate elected on such a list would have no concrete electoral district but would hang in the air. How, under such conditions, could an elected person keep in touch with the voters, be they in Estonia, Portugal, Greece or Ireland? Would the candidate have to travel around in all countries, speaking all languages? Or would it be all done via ‘social media’ in one language?
Such individuals would be so far from the street as to comprise a new European technocratic nomenklatura, detrimental to democracy. All the prior criticism of European technocracy and bureaucracy would finally seem a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s bury these ideas, full of good intentions but not thoroughly thought through. In 2014, the parliament gained informal powers through the Spitzenkandidaten process which have dissipated now—and this is not a loss for democracy. The European Parliament has however gained formal powers with each treaty change and, if the new commission proposes a conference on treaty change, other paths will have to be explored. Strengthening real democracy must be at the centre of such reflection.