By Moritz Neubert
Doctoral Student at the Chair of Political Science, Political Psychology at the University of Mannheim
After the 2019 European elections saw the highest voter turnout in 20 years, observers celebrated the resurgence of political participation and expected one of the Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidates, to head the next European Commission. However, instead of Manfred Weber from the European People’s Party (EPP), Frans Timmermans from the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), or Margrethe Vestager from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the Conservative German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen emerged as the top choice of European Heads of State and Government after a record-long summit.
Von der Leyen’s nomination by the European Council and the ensuing confirmatory vote in the European Parliament sparked a vigorous debate around the state of democracy within the EU. A process characterised by accusations of back room deals, side payments, and horse trading, combined with the apparent end of the Spitzenkandidaten process, is perceived as a betrayal of the European electorate and is expected to fuel Euroscepticism. Notwithstanding the importance of these discussions around the democratic legitimacy of the process, many analyses and commentaries fail to account for the intricacies and particularities of the EU’s governance system.
The EU institutions continue to be populated by actors who represent varying national, institutional, and political roles, interests, and identities. The deliberations in the European Council illustrate how Heads of State and Government attempt to accommodate and balance these varying roles and identities. When declaring the Spitzenkandidaten process as dead, the French President, Emanuel Macron, acted on the basis of institutional considerations, namely, to preserve the dominant position of the European Council vis-à-vis the European Parliament. This position was shared by Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland and currently the outgoing President of the European Council, who underlined that the Spitzenkandidaten process is not a ‘legal obligation’ for the Council. National interests seemingly trumped political ones in his endorsement of Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank. Although Lagarde does not belong to Macron’s political family – the liberal group – her nomination was presented as a French victory.
Similar processes could be observed within the European Parliament in the weeks after the elections. Unlike in 2014 when the EPP and S&D rallied behind Jean-Claude Juncker and left the European Council little leeway, the European Parliament was not able to identify a joint candidate. Although this can be attributed to a more fragmented parliament and the no longer existing majority of the informal coalition between the EPP and S&D, it also indicates that political interests outweighed the quest to improve the European Parliament’s institutional position compared to the European Council. Yet, the European Parliament defied the European Council by ignoring the suggestion to elect Sergei Stanishev, a Bulgarian Socialist and former Prime Minister, as its President. Instead, the Parliament sought to assert its independence and autonomy from the European Council by electing David-Maria Sassoli, an Italian Socialist, as its new President.
Whilst a precise analysis of voting behaviour in von der Leyen’s confirmatory vote is not possible as it was a secret ballot, statements by individual Members of the European Parliament (MEP) and political groups reveal further effects of intersecting national, institutional, and political dispositions. It appears that von der Leyen’s political programme, which includes, amongst others, a European minimum wage and a carbon tax, seemingly convinced parts of the Socialist group and individual members of the Greens to support her candidacy despite their concerns over the process and the parliament’s institutional position. Statements about the voting behaviour further underlined that the political groups in the European Parliament are still not acting cohesively. Several national delegations within the Socialist group, for instance MEPs from Germany, Austria, or France, indicated their rejection of von der Leyen due to their support of the Spitzenkandidaten process. This, however, also reveals that decisions within the political groups are still made along national lines.
Besides this influence on the unfolding process of von der Leyen’s nomination and approval, the intersection of national, institutional, and political roles and interests blurs the lines between the European Council and the European Parliament, or in other words, the national and European level. Emerging reports indicated that Angela Merkel had directly lobbied the leadership of the Polish PiS party in Warsaw to ensure sufficient support for von der Leyen. This instance demonstrates that processes within the European Parliament continue to be shaped by national and political considerations as well as by actors who are technically represented in other institutional bodies.
The implications of the intersection of national, institutional, and political roles, interests, and identities are three-fold. First, any analysis which seeks to understand processes and explain outcomes in the EU needs to refrain from one-dimensional perspectives and instead account for the complexities outlined above. Indeed, it is necessary to account for these factors and carefully assess their salience in their specific contexts. Second, as President of the European Commission, von der Leyen will need to be attentive to these three dimensions as they will shape the policy-making dynamics. Statements by the Greens and other groups indicate that they will either support or oppose von der Leyen’s policy proposals on an issue-by-issue basis. The commitment to improve the Spitzenkandidaten system and to advocate for transnational lists in the European elections will also lead to inter-institutional discussions between the Parliament, Commission, and Council. In fact, a move towards transnational lists and a truly European election, instead of a summation of elections in individual member states, might change the balance between national, institutional, and political considerations. Additional measures could enhance transparency of the nomination and approval process across the board, including an open ballot in the European Parliament, as already proposed by several political and national groups earlier this year. In either case, the next five years promise to provide various opportunities to witness and analyse the intricate ‘European Way’ of decision-making.