In 2014, for the first time ever, the President of the European Commission, a de facto “European Prime Minister”, was chosen through “Spitzenkandidaten”, a process similar to democratic elections of prime ministers in most EU Member States.
The main weakness of this process is that it is not enshrined in the Treaties. According to them, it is the Member States’ governments who collectively nominate a candidate for the position, and on 2nd July 2019, they nominated a person who did not run under the Spitzenkandidaten process – German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Two weeks later, the European Parliament confirmed her, but only by a thin majority of 7 votes, demonstrating its dissatisfaction with the way she was chosen. Paradoxically, in her opening statement before the vote, she expressed her aim to, quote: “…improve the Spitzenkandidaten system.”
In her speech, she also promised to initiate a “Conference on the Future of Europe”, a large forum though which EU’s citizens and other players could express their view on EU’s policy and possible reform, a proposal her Commission has already started working on. It is not yet clear how the Conference will be structured and what its outputs will be. A change of the Treaties is unlikely, but one of its main topics will most probably be Spitzenkandidaten.
Yet even if this democratic election process of the Commission President is re-established and strengthened, the individual Commissionaires, de facto EU’s ministers, will still be nominated by their Member States’ governments. According to me, this process has two systematic flaws:
First of them is connected with the overall citizens’ perception of the EU as a distant institution. Since the Commissionaires are nominated behind closed doors, being in touch with people is not what would significantly contribute to their re-election, therefore they lack the motivation to often meet with their citizens.
So how can they ensure their re-election? Sometimes, they cannot. As I mentioned before, each Commissionaire is nominated by their government. But Commissionaires have no influence on national election results and if his or her political party is removed from government, it does not matter how good the Commissionaires’ job performance was, he or she will most probably not be nominated again.
Therefore, it would make more sense to allocate the Commission portfolios in a coalition agreement between political groups in the European Parliament. After all, the Commissionaires are not supposed to represent national interests, but interests of the EU as a whole. A Commissionaire would then be more motivated to get in touch with EU’s citizens because he or she and his or her European political family would then rely on their votes. Consequentially, this would bring the EU closer to its people. But of course, this system would not be flawless, it would most probably result in politicization of the Commission, leading to a need for a big reform of its role.
It is unlikely that this topic will be opened in the upcoming Conference, even strengthening the Spitzenkandidaten system would be a big success for those of us who make the case for a Union that is close to its citizens, but that should not demotivate us from discussing and, possibly, fighting for a reform of the way our Commissionaires are chosen.