Spitzenkandidaten, transnational lists and more Brussels bubble ideas

The Spitzenkandidaten system for allowing voters a say in choosing the Commission President failed with the election of Ursula von der Leyen. Nevertheless, the European Parliament sticks to the system – and wants to add transnational lists. But this would make things even worse. – A guest column.

By Wolfgang Kowalsky*

The democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament is often questioned. It is not comparable to ‘normal’ national parliaments and is all the time trying to strengthen its legitimacy. However, there are limits for pragmatic solutions: The most striking problem is that the ‘one (wo)man, one vote’-principle is not respected. There is no pragmatic solution for this problem, as full respect would mean a Parliament with several thousand members. So other ways are being explored to increase democratic legitimacy.

Two ideas are strongly defended by the ‘insiders’: the system of spitzenkandidat and the transnational lists. Both ideas are inspired by good intentions but do not really increasing democratic legitimacy – on the contrary. The two recent spitzenkandidats of the largest groups – Timmermans and Weber – were on the voting list either in The Netherlands (17 million inhabitants) or in Germany, though not Germany as a whole but in one of the 16 Länder – Bavaria (13 million).

In other words, 90% of the European citizens were not able to participate in the election of the European spitzenkandidat. So why does the Brussels bubble defend the system so vigorously? For the two biggest European political parties, the Christian-Democratic EPP and social democratic PES the reasons are obvious – the duopoly of a division of power between the two parties would be eternalised through such a system.

No good for the Greens and the Left

However, both for the Greens and for the Left the defence of such a system is against their own interest. The defence is based on ideological assumptions, that you are a good or better European when you support such ideas. Both the Greens and the Left have spent much energy to impose the spitzenkandidat system to the candidate for Commission presidency instead of fighting for something substantial and ambitious in terms of combating climate change or making progress towards Social Europe. 

The other idea for more legitimacy is to add transnational lists to the national ones: it is not clear whether all political parties will have an additional transnational list but this idea is not much better from a democratic perspective: the big majority of European citizens go to vote when they are called to vote for the city council, the regional or national assembly. For years the European level was treated as a stepchild, and the participation rate was falling.

Now, in the context of global tensions, trade war and in particular the erosion of the EU, the citizens went to vote for strengthening Europe in a dangerous environment and saying no to anti-European forces. The insiders of the Brussels bubble misunderstand this increase of the participation rate and believe that it is linked to the idea of spitzenkandidat. This assumption is so far away from reality that outside the bubble nobody even takes note of the weird debate.

The debate is biased

But the Parliament is collectively on the path of spitzenkandidat, the path dependency being stronger than political will and convincing arguments. The debate on the spitzenkandidat is biased, the idea has become the politically correct mantra nobody dares to attack. However, it would be a step in the right direction to give a fresh start to a reflection on how European citizens could gain influence on the choice of the Commission president. A profound reform of the electoral system is needed, but the spitzenkandidat system is not part of the solution. 

The transnational lists would be lists for all European Member States. The candidates elected on such a list would have no concrete electoral district but would hang in the air. How can an elected person under such conditions keep in touch with the voters – living in Estonia, Portugal, Greece or Ireland?  Does the candidate have to travel around in all countries, speaking all languages? Or will it be all done by social media in one language? These persons will be so far away from the ground that the transnational lists would mean proposing a new European technocratic nomenklatura.

Indeed, transnational lists would shift the power to a supranational nomenklatura detrimental to democracy. That would make all the early criticism of European technocracy and bureaucracy and nomenklatura a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s bury those ideas full of good intentions, but not thoroughly thought through. If the next Commission proposes a conference on treaty change the European Parliament has gained formal powers with each Treaty change.

The spitzenkandidaten process is gone

In 2014, the Parliament gained informal powers through the spitzenkandidaten process which is gone now, and it is not a loss for democracy. Other paths have to be explored and strengthening real democracy must be in the center of reflection. 

*Referent beim Europäischen Gewerkschaftsbund (EGB) in Brüssel

Siehe auch “Der große Schwindel – Serie zur Europawahl”