The Spitzenkandidaten Plot: the European Parliament as a Strategic Competence-Maximizer

Frank SchimmelfennigThis is a guest post from Professor Frank Schimmelfennig. Professor Schimmelfennig  is Professor of European Politics and member of the Center for Comparative and International Studies at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. His main research interests are in the theory of international institutions and European integration and, more specifically, in EU enlargement, differentiated integration, democracy promotion, and democratization.

BERLIN – Spitzenkandidaten seems to have entered the English vocabulary as a new loanword of German origin – alongside Angst and Schadenfreude (and a couple of martial terms). Ostensibly, the European party groups nominated lead candidates for the post of European Commission President in order to raise the stakes of the vote, personalize the electoral campaign, and thus attract more voters to the polls. To some extent, this has worked for the candidates and their parties in their home countries. Voter turnout increased in Germany (the home country of the Social-Democrat candidate Martin Schulz and the Green candidate Ska Keller) and Greece (the home country of Alexis Tsirpas, the candidate of the radical left). Syriza, the party of Tsirpas, won a plurality of votes in Greece, and the German SPD increased its vote share by almost 7 percentage points. Belgium (the country of origin of the Liberal candidate Guy Verhoefstadt) and Luxembourg (where the candidate of the center-right European People´s Party Jean-Claude Juncker is from) have compulsory voting anyhow but their parties won a plurality of votes, too. Overall, however, turnout in the European Parliamentary elections has not increased from the 43 percent of 2009, and mainstream pro-European parties have seen their share of seats shrink from roughly 80 to 70 percent.

The real impact of the Spitzenkandidaten can be seen not in the electoral but in the institutional politics of the European Union (EU). The EU is a highly dynamic constitutional order, in which institutional actors – the Council, the Commission, the Court, and the Parliament – are not only engaged in conflicts about substantive policy, but also compete over the distribution of powers and competences. Over the past 20 years, the European Parliament (EP) has turned out to be the big winner in this competition. Starting out as an indirectly elected consultative assembly, it has acquired co-decision rights on the vast bulk of the EU´s legislation, its budget, and the appointment of the European Commission. The parliamentarization of EU governance has been one of the major structural changes in the EU´s institutional system. How has this been possible?

The first thing to keep in mind is that parliamentarization in the EU is not a replication of nation-state parliamentarization one level up. To cut a long historical process short, national parliaments have gained power in two major ways: as representative assemblies that could provide monarchs with additional revenue in exchange for a greater say in the politics of the state and as a venue for integrating powerful social movements into the political system. By contrast, the EP does not have the power to tax, it does not engage in redistributive policies, and it does not have the broad and powerful popular support that it would need to put political pressure on Europe´s governments.

The EP has benefited from two alternative mechanisms of parliamentarization: its normative bargaining power resulting from the EU´s the need to provide democratic legitimacy for supranational integration, and its inter-institutional bargaining power resulting from its cohesion and time horizon as an institutional actor. First, the increasing pooling and delegation of national sovereignty in European integration has undermined the indirect democratic legitimacy, on which the European Communities had initially rested. Democratically elected governments could be outvoted, and national parliaments lost power in the process. Because representative, parliamentary democracy is the accepted normative standard of legitimacy in Europe, a coalition of members of parliament and like-minded, integration-friendly governments has therefore pushed for compensation by empowering the EP. Most famously, the introduction and expansion of qualified majority-voting in the Council has been linked to the introduction and expansion of co-decision rights of the EP. Governments have felt normatively compelled to make such concessions to the EP even though they reduced their own decision-making power.

Second, the EP has used the concessions it received in European treaties to bargain for more competences subsequently. The EP has benefited from a long time horizon (it is elected for five years whereas Council presidencies rotate every six months), a smaller sensitivity to failure (failures are attributed to governments, not the EP), and strong cohesion in institutional affairs (a super-grand coalition of the EP supports the expansion of its competences, whereas governments are often split on this issue). As a consequence, the EP has been able to expand its competences incrementally in return for its consent to decisions and policies the Council was eager to have.

The Spitzenkandidaten plot fits this time-honored pattern of institutional conflict in the EU. The Treaty on European Union reserves the right to appoint the President of the European Commission to the European Council, i.e. the heads of state and government of the member states. Whereas the Treaty obliges the European Council to take into account the elections of the EP and to seek approval by a majority of the EP, the EP cannot formally propose its own candidate. The nomination of Spitzenkandidaten was designed to bypass this constraint. Providing its own candidate with the democratic legitimacy conveyed by the vote of Europe´s citizens would create enormous normative pressure on Europe´s governments – above all those publicly committed to a democratic European Union – to nominate the elected candidate to accept informally, if not formally, the EP´s parliamentary competence to appoint the EU´s executive. Should normative power not suffice, the EP could credibly threaten to block any alternative candidate proposed by the governments.

Is the plot working? So far yes. Spitzenkandidaten Schadenfreude on the part of the EP meets Spitzenkandidaten Angst on the part of the Council. A clear majority of the EP has thrown its weight behind Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the winning party group, and threatened the governments to veto any alternative nominee. The European Council is split and hesitant. Predictably, the most outspoken opposition to Juncker comes from Euro-skeptic countries such as Britain, Hungary, and Sweden, which fail to command a blocking minority, however. Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely seen to be the pivotal actor – able to provide the necessary votes to either block or nominate Juncker. Concerned about open conflict in the Council and Juncker´s supranationalist preferences, Merkel failed to endorse Juncker after the elections and sought to buy time. Her hesitation has, however, triggered a major rhetorical campaign in the German public and political sphere, transcending partisan divides, accusing Merkel of betraying the voters and democracy in favor of back-room deals, and in the words of the otherwise Merkel-friendly Bild tabloid, exhorting her to save the EU from turning into a banana republic. A few days later, Merkel declared that “I now lead all the discussions precisely in the spirit that Jean-Claude Juncker should be president of the European Commission” (Financial Times, 30 May 2014).


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