An Analysis of the Spitzenkandidaten Process – Part 1

Alex Zhang // 9 December 2019

The European Commission is meant to be the non-partisan, executive branch of the EU that consists of experts rather than politicians. However, the appointment of Commissioners is certainly a politicised process, so many argue for the democratisation of this procedure. One of the proposals to achieve more democracy is the Spitzenkandidaten process first tried and tested with the appointment of the Juncker Commission in 2014. In this process, each political group in the European Parliament can nominate their own candidate for the Commission Presidency, and the largest party after the election claims the role.

This plan certainly has its merits. First, it uses an indirect method whereby EU citizens are empowered to select the Commission President, which is currently proposed by the European Council. Many scholars believe this will sufficiently increase transparency and democracy in the technocratic Commission. Secondly, by having the candidate proposed by the winning party of the Parliament election, the new Commission President will be capable of marshalling sufficient Parliamentary support. Lastly, European citizens will be encouraged to vote in the EP elections, creating more pan-European political discussions and promoting EU integration.

Democratisation Arguments and Objections

Many arguments from the supporters of Spitzenkandidaten are based on the premise that the EU has a “democracy deficit.” Classic political theory suggests, that a democratic government should have both “input” and “output” legitimacy. A political institution relies on public opinion and policy preference from the people (the “input”), and the good legislation outcomes, (the “output”) to be the sources of its legitimacy. In other words, because the Commission is an expert-based, technocratic institution, the lack of transparency and political contestation would undermine its “input” legitimacy, decreasing the quality of the “output” legislative initiative it produces.

Specifically, many supporters of this argument claim that the EU has grown significantly more powerful than was original intended, having functions that exceed its “input” legitimacy. For example, in policy areas such as EU budget spending, competition regulations, and trade barriers, there are clearly conceivable winners and losers. For this reason, these topics should be considered with extra scrutiny, and require higher participation from the public.

However, this argument ignores the reality that the EU relies on institutional balance to ensure the voice of the people is properly heard. Although the EU is currently not a purely majoritarian ruled government, it is certainly not authoritarian. In other words, there is a robust element of democracy that exists in the EU system. We can find the EU as a group of institutions that have both the features of majoritarianism and technocracy. The EU relies on the Parliament to gain “input” policy reference from the European citizens, the Commission to conduct high-efficiency tasks, and the European Council to represent Member States’ interests. The Spitzenkandidaten process will simply provide more power to the Parliament and away from the Council, breaking the institutional balance of EU, which is neither direct majoritarian nor authoritarian.

A simple example is that the European Council, or the leaders of Member States, are selected through national democratic elections. Therefore, the selection of the Commission President is already an indirect reflection of the general policy preference of the European people. The Spitzenkandidaten process will mean a “power grab” of the Parliament from the national leaders.

But people may wonder why don’t we skip the step of the national leaders and give the “European people” a direct say? We might be sceptical that the mechanism of the European Council proposing new Commission Presidents may give room for political gerrymandering. After all, a direct vote of parties and agendas will be more democratic in a pan-European framework.

This idea ignores the fact that the EU is not a nation-state but rather a political entity that inherit competencies from national treaties. Giving this power to the “European People”, a rather debatable concept, without the consent of Member States’ governments is problematic. The process will mean that the European Parliament has taken certain powers that the Member States did not delegate to it.

The arguments which suggest there is a democratic deficit in selecting the Commission President, are based on misconceptions of the function of the Union and an overestimation of the role that the Commission plays in the EU. Additionally, this process may risk the impartiality principle of the Commission by introducing party politics. Therefore, we conclude that the Spitzenkandidaten process is not a necessary approach to the Commission candidate selections.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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