As elections for the European Parliament are now less than 6 months away, Brussels is buzzing with the question that everyone wants answered: who will be the next President of the European Commission? With the center right European People’s Party (EPP) leading the polls, and the left-wing Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in second place, it is likely that either Manfred Weber (EPP) or Frans Timmermans (S&D) will receive the job. This time, however, the process of selecting who leads the Commission might be as important, if not more, than the actual outcome. This round of elections will be a test for the legitimacy of the European Union. In the context of Brexit, of rising far-right sentiments, or of certain Member States sliding slowly toward illiberalism, the European Union needs to show that it can govern itself democratically and transparently. Failing to do this would only lend credibility to those arguing against enhanced European integration. The Spitzenkandidat process, which defines how a Commission President should be chosen, can help persuade voters from all Member States that they have a say in the day-to-day decision making in Brussels.
This process is a mirror image of how Prime Ministers are chosen in parliamentary democracies, where the nominee of the party with the largest share of votes is appointed. There is, however, one crucial difference: The Treaty on European Union does not actually endorse the Spitzenkandidat. Rather, it only calls for the heads of state in the European Council to nominate someone after the elections for the European Parliament have taken place. As a result, several members of the Council have already rejected any obligation to follow this process, preferring to keep their discretion in the appointment of the next President. Indeed, the Spitzenkandidat itself is more the result of a backroom deal among Brussels power brokers. The first President elected this way was Jean-Claude Juncker, in 2014. To many, this only happened because the two main parties at that time, the EPP and the Socialists, had a power sharing agreement which allowed them to divvy up the top positions in Brussels. However the Council decides to make its decision, no outcome is advantageous for S&D’s Frans Timmermans to win.
In fact, most observers expect Weber’s party, the EPP, to win the elections, and thus for him to secure the top post at the Commission. But given the tendency of pollsters to be invariably wrong in the last few years, one cannot help but wonder: what would happen if the S&D actually emerged victorious? Timmermans seems confident that this will happen. Yet, even if the S&D manages to overtake the EPP, a lot can happen that will prevent them from appointing a president from within their ranks. Even in ideal conditions, Timmermans’ path to the top of the Commission would be hard fought, mainly due to the diminishing influence of left-wing politicians in much of Europe. Center-left parties have been steadily losing ground for some time, and in the last two years the German Social-Democratic Party, the French Socialists, the Swedish Democrats, and the Dutch Labor Party, to which Timmermans belongs, have collectively suffered the worst election results since the 1950s. Even if the pollsters are once again wrong and the S&D manage to beat the EPP for a majority in the European Parliament, many of the heads of state in the Council will not belong to the center-left. This means that Timmermans might have few allies, at least among Western heads of state. In order to gain support, he will have to turn to places where social-democrats are still performing strongly, particularly in Eastern Europe.
But this, too, might prove problematic. In Romania, for example, social-democrats are expected to become the largest party represented in the European Parliament. Despite this, the country’s representative on the European Council is the President, Klaus Iohannis, who was elected as a candidate from the center-right Liberal Party. But Timmermans’ problems don’t end there. Even support from the Romanian left-wing might not come too enthusiastically. In October, the S&D nominee criticized harshly the Romanian Social-Democratic Party (PSD), who controls both Parliament and the Government, for weakening the country’s fight against corruption. This has stirred a wave of angry responses from high-profile officials within the PSD, accusing Timmermans of making unfounded accusations. If he is to ever appear before the European Parliament for a confirmation vote, it is unclear if the Romanian delegation would vote in favor of his nomination.
If the S&D wins, but their nominee fails to secure the top job at the Commission, the perception will be that yet another backroom deal was made, removed from any form of democratic accountability. In order to re-legitimize itself in the eyes of all citizens, the European Union needs to fight against the stigma that Brussels officials are isolated from the wants and needs of the average citizen. Frans Timmermans is often described as a meticulous politician, a charismatic leader, and a brilliant campaigner. But this time around, these qualities might not be enough. Staunchly defending social-democratic values in a Europe that is dominated by the center-right has not made Timmermans many friends. Nonetheless, if the Council is put in a position to nominate him, it must do so. Selecting the next Commission President has to be done transparently, and respecting the Spitzenkandidat is the only way to do this.