ALDE risks derailing Spitzenkandidaten process

Roughly half a year ahead of the European elections, Europarties start the process of choosing their candidate for the EU top job: the Presidency of the European Commission.

The European People’s Party (EPP) has already backed Manfred Weber to become the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat. The Party of the European Socialists (PES) will confirm Frans Timmermans, sole candidate for the position, at its Council in Lisbon in December. The European Greens will announce the results of their internal competition this weekend. Even the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) has nominated its Chairman Jan Zahradil, who oddly enough giving the very cautious positions on further integration expressed by the other candidates, positioned himself as the “pro-European, but anti-federalist voice” in the election.

Sadly, a party that used to fiercely advocate for the Lead Candidate system is missing from the list. The leadership of the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) decided to push back against the Spitzenkandidaten system this year, and not to nominate one person for the top EU position. While we acknowledge the current system is not without limitations, in particular in the absence of transnational lists, and would require a serious commitment of Europarties to a common electoral programme and a strong position for their lead candidate to add democratic quality, ALDE is setting back the clock of the democratic process in the EU: in fact, the lead candidate system, in its present shape, is not much different from any of the parliamentary electoral systems practiced in Member States. ALDE  strongly advocated for such a system based on parliamentary majorities in  2014, when Verhofstadt himself – yesterday a Spitzenkandidat, today a critique – claimed that if the European Council was not to choose one of such personalities indicated by Europarties “that will be the end of democracy in Europe”. Clearly, this  change of heart is dictated more by short-sighted opportunism  – as ALDE is actively seeking an alliance with President Macron’s En Marche movement, who, coincidentally, is said to also oppose  the Lead candidate system – rather than deeply entrenched principles.

This decision seriously risks to jeopardise the process itself. As a party of the centre, its Lead Candidate could have been a suitable compromise candidate to negotiate majorities in the European Parliament, as it is highly unlikely that any political party will gain absolutely majority in the next elections.  In the absence of such a candidate, the decision risks being left in the hands of the European Council, which will jump at the opportunity to strike a deal on the future 5 years of the European Union behind closed doors, completely ignoring the citizens’ vote.

The commitment taken by EPP, PES, Greens and ACRE is a positive step towards more legitimacy in selecting the European Commission President. We’re still hopeful that other parties – such as the European Left and European Spring – will follow suit, but it is still lacking real political debate. The added value of such a system can only be achieved by wholeheartedly engaging with the procedure, launching a real political debate on the Future of Europe and committing to building a campaign on a common European agenda during and after the elections. This also means public debates between candidates, broadcasted in prime time on public TV channels. Only through a truly European campaign will the Spitzenkandidaten system bring the elections closer to the citizens and channel the aspirations for an EU-wide public sphere. For better or for worse, the Spitzenkandidaten still remain the best tool to make European politics more tangible and deepen voters’ understanding of the European dimension of their electoral decision.

About the Spitzenkandidaten system
Spitzenkandidaten (‘Lead Candidate’ in German) is a process in the elections to the European Parliament, where each political group choses a candidate to lead their campaign. After the elections, the position of President of the European Commission then goes to the nominated lead candidate of the European political group that is able to command a parliamentary majority in the European Parliament. In case where no party wins absolute majority votes, the lead candidate needs to negotiate a coalitions that will support him.

The system was introduced in 2014, where the lead candidate from the EPP, Jean-Claude Juncker, was appointed the President of the European Commission. This happened on the basis of a “grand coalition” agreement, where a common list of priorities was set between EPP, ALDE and S&D, Juncker became the President of the Commission, and Martin Schulz (S&D) became the President of the European Parliament.

More information on JEF Europe
The Young European Federalists (JEF) Europe is a non-partisan youth NGO active with 13.000  members active in more than 35 countries. The organisation strives towards a federal Europe based on the principles of democracy and subsidiarity as well as respect for human rights. While the umbrella organisation JEF Europe was founded in 1972, its sections have been operating continuously since the end of the Second World War, making it the oldest pro-European and only federalist youth organisation.


JEF Europe Secretariat
+32 2 512 00 53