Summary of the Jean Monnet Lecture by Sophia Russack (7 February)

On 7 February 2019, Sophia Russack gave the third Jean Monnet lecture of this academic year. Sophia Russack is Researcher within the Institutions unit at CEPS (Centre for European Policy Studies) in Brussels, and alumna of the FASoS Research Master in European Studies. Besides her responsibilities at CEPS, Sophia is currently also conducting her PhD at Maastricht University, which made her Jean Monnet lecture the first one delivered by a Maastricht University alumna and student.

In her lecture titled “The European Parliament elections 2019: New internal dynamics and the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ mess”, she gave a comprehensive overview of the state of play in light of the upcoming EP elections.

According to her, the 2019 EP elections will be the test of the Spitzenkandidaten process. This is a procedure whereby European political parties, ahead of European elections, appoint lead candidates for the role of Commission President, with the presidency of the Commission then going to the candidate of the political party capable of marshalling sufficient parliamentary support. The system was put forward in the run-up to the 2014 elections, with Jean-Claude Juncker, then EPP Spitzenkandidat and current Commission President, strongly supporting the initiative.

With just around three months to go before the elections take place, the current political context is much different than it was in 2014, Sophia Russack explained. First, projections show a decline in consensus in the most established political groups, EPP and S&D, and the rise of Eurosceptic groups. However, she observed, these Eurosceptic parties are actually very different and too divided to create a coalition. Moreover, their success will be mitigated by the consequences of Brexit. In fact, the 2019-2024 EP will be considerably smaller, with 705 seats rather than 751, as the 73 UK seats will be partly eliminated and partly redistributed to other Member States to re-establish the correct national population ratios. It is predicted that such distribution will negatively affect Eurosceptic parties.

Yet, as Sophia Russack illustrated, the biggest test for the Spitzenkandidaten process comes from within the EU institutions. While in 2014 the EP was strongly united in supporting the system, and almost threatened the European Council that it would not give its approval to anyone but the winning Spitzenkandidat, this time around it has not expressed the same enthusiasm. Between political groups putting forward more than one candidate (for instance Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL) and others refusing to propose any (such as ALDE), every political group has created its own rule for the game. The European Council, from its side, has always made clear that it does not consider itself bound by the Spitzenkandidaten system, and that it retains the discretion to nominate an ‘outsider’. Yet, it is predictable that in case of overwhelming support for a candidate by the major political groups, it will go through with his appointment.

There is also another issue with the Spitzenkandidaten procedure: in 2014 it failed to deliver on one of its keypromises, namely helping the democratic deficit by bringing the EU top job closer to the electorate, and thus increasing citizens’ involvement with European affairs and consequently improve the turnout. When this did not materialise, the blame was placed on the fact that the Spitzenkandidaten machinery started operating too late, just few months before the elections, which did not leave enough time for proper campaigning. However, Sophia Russack observed, the lesson was not learned, as the clock is now ticking and the Spitzenkandidaten campaigns are all but in full swing. Some claims this time around turnout might still increase due to on the one hand, the feeling of European unity partially revamped following Brexit, and on the other hand, the Eurosceptics seeking to ride the Brexit wave. This too will be tested by the results of the vote in May.

So who is going to be the next Commission President? Sophia Russack could not commit herself to any prediction. All the eyes are now looking at Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, Spitzenkandidaten of EPP and S&D respectively, but she did not exclude the possibility of an ‘outsider’ such as Margrethe Vestager and Michel Barnier. In fact, she said, many cringe at the idea of a Germany-led Commission, and in the upcoming months many top EU jobs will become vacant and up for grabs by defeated candidates. And while Vestager has declared she does not intend to run for the Commission presidency on behalf of the ALDE group, things may change when the offer is on the table.

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