No one can be sure who will be the next European Commission President, replacing the current incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker. But this is not only because of uncertainty about the results of the forthcoming European Parliament elections across the EU from 23-26 May (Ireland votes on 24 May).
It is also because the procedure for appointing the next President of the European Commission has not been fully settled upon between all national governments and the European Parliament.
In 2014, for the first time, national governments approved the appointment of the lead candidate (often referred to in EU jargon as the Spitzenkandidat, from the German term) of the largest political group at the European Parliament after elections that year – then namely, Mr. Juncker of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP, which includes Fine Gael and German Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats).
The idea was that the President of the European Commission, the body that drafts EU laws and monitors their implementation, should have a more direct democratic mandate from EU citizens. This time (elections to the European Parliament are held every five years), however, not all national governments, such as France, remain convinced by the Spitzenkandidat process, in part because some think Juncker’s Commission has been too political based on that 2014 mandate.
Some of those governments would prefer the Commission to act more like a neutral civil service, than part of the EU executive with its own democratic mandate from the European Parliament (and by extension EU citizens). Some other governments are just not keen on the main lead candidates of the European Parliament political groups.
Moreover, not all political groups at the European Parliament have nominated a lead candidate, such as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, which includes Fianna Fáil, the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, and hopes to form an alliance after the May elections at the European Parliament with French President Macron’s LREM party).
The lead candidates of the two biggest European Parliament groups are the EPP’s Manfred Weber, a German MEP, and Frans Timmermans, currently the Dutch Vice-President of the European Commission, of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, which includes Labour, the SDLP, Spanish PM Sanchez’s Socialists and Italy’s Democrats).
ALDE has nominated a “Team EU” of at least seven lead candidates, while both the Greens (which includes the Irish and German Greens) and the United Left (which includes Sinn Féin, Podemos from Spain, and Syriza from Greece) have each selected two lead candidates.
That not all European political groups have selected one lead candidate further confuses the Spitzenkandidat procedure. Even so, some of the lead candidates clearly expect to be in the running to be the next Commission President, as shown during some of their recent public debates, where they discussed ideas as ambitious as an “European army” and a “European fiscal policy”. However, their views on these specific issues may not matter very much in practice, since national governments retain vetoes over both these policy areas – tax and defence.
This is the crux of the issue behind debates on the Spitzenkandidat process – both its merits and drawbacks –: the ongoing institutional tussle between democratically-elected national governments at the Council and directly-elected MEPs the European Parliament, over who will lead the next European Commission.
This tussle reflects the hybrid nature of EU governance, since it is a Union of both citizens and states. For example, although the European Commission takes the lead in some key policy areas, like the single market and external trade agreements (such as with Canada and Japan recently), the European Parliament co-decides legislation and the EU budget with the national governments at the Council.
Moreover, national heads-of-governments retain ultimate arbitration power at their European Council summits (their national government ministers meet at the Council of the EU). In the coming months, those same heads-of-government will not only have to approve a new European Commission President, but also a new President of the European Council (currently Donald Tusk, who chairs their summits), a new EU foreign policy chief (currently Federica Mogherini), and head of the European Central Bank (currently Mario Draghi).
They will try to strike a balance between regional differences on some policy areas (i.e. North/South on the Euro, and East/West on migration), as well as considering the representation of political groups at the European Parliament after the elections.
Depending on the politics of all that, national governments may prefer not to approve the European Parliament’s post-election Spitzenkandidat and select another candidate instead. Current EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is sometimes touted as an ideal compromise candidate. But a national governments’ candidate, like Barnier, would still need to be approved by the European Parliament, ahead of taking up their position on 1 November.
The question, therefore, is not so much who will be the next President of the European Commission, but whether that person is elected via the European Parliament elections, selected by the democratically–elected national governments, or a mix of both.