Interview of Fabrizio Levi - "Spitzendkandidat system" and the European elections 2019


The European Parliament elections took place on May 2019, with results which reshaped the political makeup of the European Union. Single-issue parties, such as the Brexit Party and Greens were better across Europe, while the usual "big parties" such as EPP did not get the strong majority expected. 

We interviewed Fabrizio Levi, specialised in Politics with a strong emphasis on European one who also is the secretary of our national delegation of Austria.

Ambassadeurs de la Jeunesse :  What is so special about the "Spitzenkandidat" system? Does it exist only in Europe ?

Fabrizio Levi : Well yes, the Spitzenkandidaten-system is quite special. First of all, it's not mentioned in the EU-treaties and therefore not formally EU-Law. The system is more of an agreement between the EU-Parliament, the EU-Fractions and the EU-Council on how to interpret / paraphrase the treaties. The Spitzenkandidaten-system, or loosely translated the frontrunner or top candidate system was first used in 2014 when Jean-Claude Juncker was elected president of the European Commission. He was the chairman of the Europeans Peoples Party (EPP), which won the EU-elections at that time. All five EU fractions/parties decided upon a top-candidate of their own, that would get the political office in case of a victory in the EU-elections. 

The "Spitzenkandidat" system wasn't by any means a novel invention by the European Union. This system was adopted from the german federal elections from which they adopted the name.

AJ : Why was it called into question after the European Elections 2019 ?

FL : First of all it's necessary to clarify who has the power to suggest and decide upon possible candidates. Up till then it has been the EU-Fractions in the European Parliament which brought up possible nominees referencing to the majority situation. 

This procedure was halted for the European Elections of 2019 because the EU-Council decided to come forward with a set of candidates of their own. 

Other than an internal power struggle between the European Parliament and the EU-Council, it's mostly the fear of growing populism and euroscepticism inside EU-institutions that made the system of the "Spitzenkandidat" sway. The last parliamentary elections (EU-Parliament) and the ongoing Brexit where a pretty clear signal for the EU that some kind of change would be necessary. If the "Spitzenkandidat" system remains as it is, it could mean that in the near future important EU-offices could be filled by populists and/or eurosceptic politicians.

AJ : Why didn't the EPP present a candidate of their choice, even though they hold a substantial majority ?

FL : Even though the European Union was created upon the idea of a certain set of common values and shared views, it is still a strongly heterogeneous conglomerate of often opposing interests. France and Germany represent the two powerhouses inside the union and therefore regularly compete for certain policies or/and offices. 

In the beginning of the race for office all seemed to point to the chairman of the EPP (Manfred Weber) as a clear choice as "Spitzenkandidat" and therefore frontrunner for the position as president of the EU-Commission. 

Although Weber's fraction holds proportionally most of the seats in the EU-Parliament, eventually the EU-Council decided against him. Apparently this outcome was caused by multiple reasons. First, because of Manfred Weber´s general lack of experience in national politics. Second, a substantial opposition by many eastern european countries and third, a missing bipartisan majority in the European Parliament itself. Finding common ground can be hard to manage, especially if you need to come to arrange with two dozen other quite heterogeneous countries. With Ursula von der Leyen, so it seems, they managed a balancing act which overcomes the latest differences, especially those between France and Germany. She fluently speaks both languages (French and German) and she agreed on pursuing multiple policies, like a CO² Tax, which are important to France. Finally she was able to collect plenty of experience in international and national politics while holding the office of secretary of state for the Merkel cabinet.

AJ : What kind of criticism has been raised due to the choice of Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde as the presidents of the EU-Commission and the ECB ?

FL : The strongest criticism was raised about the way in which this decision was made. 

Multiple politicians and parties from different member states expressed their opposition against the EU-Council overruling the "Spitzenkandidaten" -system. 

Not considering the top candidates of the different factions in the European Parliament and opting for their own nominees deprived the whole process of some degree of democratic legitimation. Regardless, many states welcomed the decision, especially the baltic member states which agree upon her incline for a stronger and safer European Union. Besides the criticism about the process of getting into office there were also some minor concerns about the necessary skill set of Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde. During Ms. von der Leyen´s time as the defence secretary many issues arose about a multitude of problems in the German armed forces. Meanwhile even though Ms. Lagarde was the director of the IMF since 2011 some believe she is missing a proper economic education and might therefore be unable to set the right economic policies.