Just the Facts – The Spitzenkandidaten

Today the Heads of State from all 28 EU Member States met to formally nominate former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Claude Juncker, as the next President of the European Commission.  The Council’s nomination will now be voted on by the European Parliament in mid-July.

In this article we take a look at some of the legal and political reasons behind the selection process for what is arguably the most powerful post in the EU.

The Spiztenkandidaten or Lead Candidates

In the recent European Parliament elections, all the major pan-European political parties nominated a “Spitzenkandidat”, otherwise known as a lead candidate selected by them as their nominee to be the next European Commission President.  While no physical election actually took place, the results of the European Parliament elections and the fortunes of each of the political parties were tied to the selection of European Commission President.

At a pre-election congress last March, held in Dublin, the European People’s Party (EPP) selected former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker over France’s Commissioner Michel Barnier as their choice to be the next Commission President.  The Party of European Socialists (PES) chose Martin Schulz, the German President of the European Parliament, while the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) chose former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

Aftermath of the elections

Following the elections, the EPP emerged as the largest group in the European Parliament, returning 221 MEPs from across the EU.  However, despite the electoral victory, the immediate response to the prospect of Juncker as the next Commission President was lukewarm at best.  British Prime Minister David Cameron has been the most vocal opponent to Juncker and has sought to encourage other heads of states to block his nomination.  Ultimately Cameron only received support, albeit muted, on this from the Hungarian Prime Minister.

Cameron’s opposition was based on personality as well as process.  He was opposed to Juncker due to the Luxembourger’s federalist beliefs while Cameron has also continually questioned the legalities of the entire Spitzenkandidaten process.

Treaty Changes

Previously, the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice foresaw that heads of state and government nominate a candidate for Commission President, who is then approved by the European Parliament.

This situation was altered by the Lisbon Treaty, which was prepared by the Constitutional Convention.  Declaration No. 11 attached to the Lisbon Treaty specified that the selection of the President of the Commission will be preceded by consultations between the Parliament and the Council.

In 2012, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called on European political parties to nominate lead candidates for President of the European Commission, in line with the Treaty changes that were now applicable.  Later in 2012, the European Parliament echoed this call in a Resolution.  In 2013, the European Commission published a Recommendation, penned by European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, calling for lead candidates for President of the Commission in the 2014 European elections.

March 2013 Communication

The Commission Recommendation was accompanied by a Communication setting out the reasoning behind having lead candidates or ‘Spitzenkandidaten’.  Commission Communication of 12 March 2013: Preparing for the 2014 European elections: further enhancing their democratic and efficient conduct:

“In accordance with the Treaty, the outcome of the European elections should play a key role in determining which candidate becomes President of the Commission.

 1 out of 2 EU citizens would feel more inclined to vote in the 2014 European elections if each of the major European political alliances put forward a candidate for the function of President of the European Commission, on the basis of a common programme.

 “If European political parties and national political parties make known their nominations for the function of President of the Commission and the candidate’s programme in the context of the European elections, this will make concrete and visible the link between the individual vote of the EU citizens for a candidate for membership of the European Parliament and the candidate for President of the Commission supported by the party of the candidate MEP.

 This would help EU citizens to better understand which candidate for President of the Commission their vote will ultimately support. It would increase the legitimacy of the President of the Commission and more generally, the democratic legitimacy of the whole EU decision-making process.  It could also contribute to raising the turnout for European elections by strengthening the link between the election of the representatives of the citizens with the selection and election process of the head of the European executive.  In the United States of America, when elections to Congress take place in the same year as the Presidential election, more people turn out to vote than in mid-term years, when only about 40 % of voters go to the polls.”

Next Steps

The European Council proposed Jean-Claude Juncker as the next President of the European Commission on Friday, 27 June 2014.   This will be ratified by the European Parliament in mid-July.


This Just the Facts article is also available as an email information service from European Movement Ireland to our members.  For more information on becoming a member of European Movement Ireland, contact our offices or visit our Membership webpages.


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