Ahead of the elections, the party groups sitting in the European Parliament announced who their pan-European lead candidate will be – the ‘Spitzenkandidat’, informally making them the face of their respective campaigns. The Spitzenkandidat whose party bloc can form a majority coalition and secure 378 seats within the European Parliament will (in the opinion of many MEPs) have the strongest mandate to become the next European Commission President.
This process occurred in 2014 when Jean-Claude Juncker (Spitzenkandidat for the EPP) was selected as President of the European Commission. Crucially, the European Council is not legally bound to follow the Spitzenkandidat process and could choose an alternative candidate. More on this in our upcoming briefing.
If the European People’s Party (EPP) is again the largest bloc in the European Parliament, their Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber (DE, Christian Social Union) could very well secure the Commission’s top job.
On 23 April in an effort to showcase his European credentials he launched his campaign in Athens rather than his home state of Bavaria His programme revolves around three themes: a Europe that is safe, digital and caring. His plans include a revamping of the EU’s Coast and Border Guard, the establishment of joint investigation teams, the creation of a digital transition fund, financed by a digital fair tax, a master plan to fight cancer and a push for a global ban on disposable plastics.
However, it could be the case that the EPP will need the support of other pro-EU party blocs to gain control of the 378 seats required for a majority. However, these parties could decide not to endorse Weber because of his political views and lack of experience in government. Therefore, inter-group negotiations could be needed to overcome an impasse. The participation of the United Kingdom (UK) in the European elections and Orban’s decision to withdraw his support for Weber's candidacy are elements which makes Weber’s path to the top floor in the Berlaymont seem more challenging than at first meets the eye.
Why is this?
As polling stands, the British electorate are predicted to return 21 Labour MEPs to the European Parliament – who as members of the S&D would give the centre-left bloc more leverage in negotiations deciding the Commission’s top job. Orban’s explosive decision to withdraw his support for Weber challenges the Bavarian’s claim to be a master of ‘big tent’ politics.
ALDE chose a different path for these elections and presented a team of 7 candidates, the so-called Team Europe. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and MEP Guy Verhofstadt are amongst the candidates.
The European Green Party and the Party of the European Left (GUE/NGL) have both nominated two candidates, respectively Bas Eickhout (NL, Groen Links) and Ska Keller (DE, Die Grünen), and Violeta Tomic (SLO, The Left) and Nico Cué (BE, European Left).
The S&D candidate, Frans Timmermans (NL, Partij van de Arbeid), was announced at the Party of European Socialists (PES) meeting in Lisbon in December and is a strong contender, especially if UK Labour MEPs boost his chances against the EPP candidate. He faced Manfred Weber on 17 April in the first presidential debate of the elections. In a consensual discussion they agreed on the need for a more coordinated European defence policy and a revision of EU rules on asylum. Controversy arose around the theme of austerity, the future of the Brexit process, and potential cooperation with far-right or far-left parties inside the European Parliament.
All the Spitzenkandidaten nominated by the major parties, except for Weber, who turned down the invitation, also participated in a live debate on 29 April in Maastricht. Participants comprised Violeta Tomic (Party of the European Left), Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists), Bas Eickhout (European Green Party), Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party), and Jan Zaharadil (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe). In general, the tone of the debate was calm and agreeable, yet the sharpest clashes were on whether or not there should be an EU army. The next debate will be held on 15 May in the European Parliament. One big news item from the debate is that Verhofstadt declared ALDE’s plan to dissolve after the election and form a new, centrist political family with French President Emmanuel Macron and candidates on his "Renaissance" list. Whilst not predicted to be the largest group, they are projected to obtain around 100 parliamentary seats
Another official debate will be held on 15 May in the European Parliament.