"Spitzenkandidaten": the underlying story

20'37" 22/05/2015
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How for the first time the winning majority got to select the Commission President...but not before a series of almighty political clashes.
Transcript
For Mr Jean-Claude Juncker: 422 votes.

On behalf of the whole house, I'd like to congratulate you, the Commission President-designate, and wish you the best of success. Enjoy working with your supporters, but also with your opponents. They will shape your profile, although today you proved that you have one already. Jean-Claude Juncker, I wish you the best of luck for your future work.

Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
I have always called for a Spitzenkandidat, a top candidate, because I thought that would allow people not to personalise but to visualise one of the issues of the election campaign, which was to know who would be appointed President of the Commission and how.
Spitzenkandidat.

Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Spitzenkandidat, top candidate. The simple German compound noun becomes the symbol of European democratic reform. Never since the EU's creation in 1957 do five candidates vie for the post of President of the European Commission. This time the appointment doesn't depend on agreement between the EU's now 28 heads of state and government, as before, but on the results of the polls. And for the first time Europeans discover televised presidential debates...

Where is the European Union? ..three of them, all crossing national borders. The Greek Alexis Tsipras for the Left, the German Ska Keller for the Greens, another German Martin Schulz for the Socialists, Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker for the Christian Democrats and for the Liberals, Belgian Guy Verhofstadt. It was a long-term concept and also a part of our campaign that was decided on 1.5 years before the election, when we said, 'This time it's different. Choose who's in charge.' It was a different approach.

The citizens were to choose, not only who would make up the Parliament but also who would lead the EU executive, the European Commission. The initial idea came from the CDU. I think it was at the CDU general convention in '97 where it was decided they wanted to have a top candidate in the European elections who would then become Commission President if they won the election. It's an old CDU idea.

Joseph Daul. Long-standing and well-connected EPP leader.

So where in his view did it all start?
The word Spitzenkandidat has been around for a long time in the EPP. In 2001, 2002, in Laeken, there were discussions on the evolution of Europe. So there was already this discussion about giving an image and a face to Europe. Secondly, if the Socialist party joined in with this discussion and this Spitzenkandidat project, then it would be a done deal. And we would be on the way to the Spitzenkandidat system.

And I think that Martin Schulz, who's very political and very committed, was a great help in setting up the Spitzenkandidat system in the last European elections.

Joseph Daul
Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats)
The Liberals, Greens and the left join in the initiative. But Mr Schulz it is who is credited above all, outside of the Brussels political circuit, too. In his book, 'History of the West', the German historian Heinrich August Winkler identifies him as the force bringing the Spitzenkandidat system into being.

The very idea of the Spitzenkandidat is taken up again in 2013 and 2014 as political parties prepare for the European elections. Five parties organise primaries to elect their chosen one. For the Socialists it's Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, selected in October 2013. The following year in March, less than three months before the elections, the centre-right European People's Party is the last to take the plunge at their convention in Dublin.

Face to face, former European Commissioner Michel Barnier and former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. Mr Juncker it is who wins the contest... We will win this election, I guarantee you. ..embarking on a whirlwind pre-election campaign tour across Europe. On the one hand, we have really a genuinely new European process where pan-European candidates go around different countries, debate with each other, give interviews in other countries' national media. Yet at the same time we also face the limitations of that due to language, due to name recognition, due to the established political forces within each Member State.

Let that be no hindrance to politicians who've got votes to win. The 'Spitzenkandidaten' go on tour in 28 Member States.

We as leading candidates were the face of the European dimension of this election. It is very complicated to be known all over Europe. It's a big continent. We have so many different Member States. You have to be able to speak in different languages, so it really is not easy. But I do think this can only have been the first step.

Ska Keller
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
Thrust under the spotlight, in a spectacle new to the whole process of electing the European Parliament, the televised debate. A chance, under equal conditions for all, for the candidates to win the hearts and souls of Europe's notoriously reluctant voters.

I would have preferred interviews, dialogue, real exchanges, which isn't possible with five or six people. The fact that Jean-Claude Juncker, the current President of the Commission, and I chose to speak in our language was a move that respects the European institutional position because people from different countries and languages meet there.
This leading candidate issue brought a European debate to the European level and I really felt it resonated in different countries. Sure that was also varying from country to country, but still it really brought a European dimension to the national campaigns.

Ska Keller
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
What did it all add up to? The press loves a spectacle, no doubt about that, and there was one. An institution, the European Parliament, previously held by many as rather staid, rather distant, shaking things up. When the time came to announce the results in 2009, I spoke in the hemicycle to an audience of mainly civil servants. On 25 May 2014 in the hemicycle I faced hundreds of journalists. The room was packed full of journalists who were there in the same way they would be for the results of national elections in a Member State of the European Union.

That's perhaps the most graphic way of showing the difference between the interest in the elections in 2009 and the interest in the elections in 2014. Although overall turnout was down a shade on the previous election, the results threw up plenty of surprises, some none too palatable to Europe's politicians on the centre left, centre right or in the middle. A sharp rise in political extremism, on the left as well as the right. A decline in the vote for the Christian Democrats of the EPP, though the Conservatives in the ECR Group increased their share.

None of it exactly sea changes in the way Europe operates, but the fuse was lit.

The European Council, however, seemed reluctant or slow, or both, to wake up to the new reality. Usually, its now 28 heads of state and government meet directly after the elections to thrash out who will get the Commission's top job, and then to influence the Commissioner posts. This time it was different. Some grumbled about what they felt was a power grab from democratically elected Member State leaders. Most eventually came to accept the Spitzenkandidat procedure, but not before an almighty struggle over Jean-Claude Juncker.

Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, believed he had the support of Angela Merkel, Europe's leading Christian Democrat, and the Swedes in opposing the appointment. It looked like the carefully prepared procedures of the Spitzenkandidat system were starting to unravel.

The Chancellor will now give you an account of this informal summit. It’s obvious that none of the political groups, although the EPP has become the strongest force and Jean-Claude Juncker is our Spitzenkandidat for Commission President, none of the parties has an independent majority in the European Parliament, so assuredly we will have to discuss a wider set of options in order to come to an overall agreement. We have nominated Jean-Claude Juncker for the position of Commission President and the entire agenda can be enforced by him, but also by many others, I have no doubt.

I guess we've all witnessed politicians changing their tune after elections. You can pull that off on complex factual issues, given coalition constraints etcetera, but when it comes to the simple question of standing behind one's Spitzenkandidat, you just can't do that. It would be such an obvious lie that no politician could survive it, thankfully. For Britain and Sweden to say after the elections, 'We didn't agree with this idea of the top candidate', is coherent and logical. For others to envisage at a certain point disregarding the European election results was a surprise, but not a very big one, because those who were suspected of wanting to disregard the election results had told me that wasn't the case.

I felt very disappointed by that because we've been doing this campaign. It was clear from the outset that whoever wins will have the first shot at trying to find a majority and that's what we were striving for. So, I mean, Juncker is from a different political party. I didn't support him as a candidate but I absolutely supported his right to be the first to try and find a majority.
Ska Keller
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
This was the top evidence of the lack of democracy in the EU. It shows how small the belief of the European authorities is in people power and in democracy, and the more it drifts away from democracy, the more it will create distance between citizens and Europe.

A big mistake. I thought they were making a big mistake, and that's how it turned out. The storm of protest, particularly in the German media, was of an intensity I had not experienced before. I think this was a case of the media playing a vital part in a democracy. The fact that the journalists said this can't be right. All these heads of state, as party leaders at their conventions, nominated the candidates, but distanced themselves from this as heads of state. This can't be right.

Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Looking at the way certain media were reacting to the statements of different people, I thought there would clearly be a fairly tough political battle over a few weeks but it was clear that the Parliament would never accept a candidate who wasn't from the shortlist of the Spitzenkandidaten. One of the key players in the resolution of it all wasn't a politician, but a journalist. Rolf-Dieter Krause, Brussels correspondent of ARD, flabbergasted at what he saw.

He said as much on air in a broadcast that was subsequently widely shared in the social media. That was a first for me, sitting opposite the Chancellor at a press conference and gradually losing my temper. For Mrs Merkel is planning to commit blatant fraud, not in the sense of criminal law, but political fraud. She's planning to cheat you, the electorate. For decades, the parties have begged us to vote in the European elections. They had to beg because it wasn't clear what we were supposed to decide upon.

Having leading candidates was a political promise. If it is broken, it can hardly be surprising that citizens turn their backs on Europe.
It was good that he made that statement, because the German media was unfortunately very quiet about the leading candidate process. There was no transmission of the debate. It was very, very silent.
Ska Keller
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
I think he was also riled on a personal level. It seemed his position as an honest reporter of information to the public had been compromised.

Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
And then the writing was on the wall. Mr Cameron found himself isolated, any thought of consensus with Mrs Merkel evaporating. What did the man at the centre of events make of it all? Mrs Merkel was the first of the political leaders of the EPP to ask me to be a candidate. In November 2013.

So I knew she would keep her word and I never had a moment's doubt about that. Jean-Claude Juncker is also a party politician.
And now, after the event, when Social Democrats helped him to succeed, against Christian Democrats, he thanks the CDU party leader and German Chancellor. I won't hold that against him, but it's quite a remarkable account of the events.

Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
I firmly believe in the principle that the European Council should be the one to propose the candidate. I believe that by working together we could have found an alternative candidate who supported... who commanded the support of every Member State, agreeing together on the best way forward.

This is a bad day for Europe. It risks undermining the position of national governments. It risks undermining the power of national parliaments and it hands new power to the European Parliament.
It was a small storm and I understand Mr Cameron. Mr Cameron said, 'I will never agree to either Tusk or Juncker.' But when you're on your own among 28, be careful. If you only do 'phasing out', you'll exclude yourself.

And if you're no longer inside the debate and you always ask for exclusions, in the end you're excluded and no one will pay any attention to you. I believe the decision to appoint Jean-Claude Juncker
Joseph Daul
Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats)
provides us with a new Commission President who possesses European experience and who will also, as he has been telling us repeatedly over the last few days, listen to the wishes of individual Member States as well as the Parliament's.

Some British newspapers rally behind the prime minister fearing the possibility of a prominent federalist running Europe's executive if the appointment is confirmed in Parliament in July.
I wouldn't call it a revolution, but it changes the balance significantly, or redresses it, between Community institutions and national institutions.
Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Many observers say that the President of the Commission now has greater legitimacy than was the case previously. I want to believe it and I do believe it but the Commission President isn't the only person to represent EU citizens.

Prime ministers, national parliaments, the European Parliament also represent the citizens. I don't have the monopoly for representation of citizens.
The treaties are very clear that the parliamentary election results have to play a role. Of course you can make up any interpretation of what that means, but if they are to play a role, then whoever wins the elections has the first shot.
Ska Keller
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
It was really necessary at this critical moment that in the centre of Europe this different view on austerity could be heard. They have assured the country that Syriza is a European power.

It is not the pariah of Europe, it is part of the European puzzle, with a view that must be considered and contrasts with the prevailing one. I think the European citizens have now gained an increased say not only on the composition of Parliament but also over the executive, which is an executive that increasingly sets its own agenda, meaning its leadership must be directly accountable to a public vote. It's a first step.
I'm quite sure that in the next European elections in 2018 there will be competition for this post within political groups, as people now understand that whoever is made top candidate stands a chance of becoming Commission President, without any dealings behind closed doors, but following an election campaign.

This will increase the appeal of the selection process and raise the candidates' status. I think we're at a beginning. Those countries that didn't take part had low election turnouts, whereas turnouts increased in countries that held election campaigns.

Ladies and gentlemen, the announcement of the election result concludes a process that without any doubt some, or most of you will have deemed a historical process. The result of this process is the next President of the European Commission,

who, unlike his predecessors, will assume his office with strong parliamentary support. Your vote, ladies and gentlemen, will be declared in a legal act signed by myself and presented to you.

Mr Juncker.

Martin Schulz
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Mr President, it's not merely out of courtesy that I agree to the procedure you suggested. But please let everyone have a copy.