By Julien Navarro, Giulia Sandri, and Felix von Nostitz
It is only the second time in 2019 that the European Parliament (EP) election is preceded by the Spitzenkandidaten (top or lead candidates) process. This mechanism involves the nomination of a lead candidate for the European Commission President by each of the European political groups and Europarties (that is the European federations of national parties), before the Parliamentary elections take place. The lead candidate of the party obtaining a majority at the EP would then assume the Commission Presidency, provided that approval by the European Council is obtained. However, shadows of doubt about this process and its democratic nature already loom heavily over it. Beside the ongoing debate on whether or not the Spitzenkandidaten system is legal and compatible with the European Union (EU) treaties, its overall aim to “reconnect” European citizens to the European political process is also challenged, both by national governments and EU experts.
The main rationale for adopting the Spitzenkandidaten system was to increase satisfaction and trust of EU citizens in the EU institutions in general, and the Commission and Parliament in particular, by making the selection of the Commission President more transparent, democratic and participatory. This system is expected to personalize further the European elections’ campaign and structure it more clearly around European issues. In short, the Spitzenkandidaten system aims to strengthen the role, influence and oversight powers of the EP (the only directly elected institution of the EU) in the election of the Commission. It thus hopes to address the various concerns long raised by both observers and citizens over the EU democratic deficit.
In order to assess if the Spitzenkandidaten system is an effective tool of democratic innovation or just window dressing, we must consider what forms it can take, how it has been used so far, as well as its effect on popular perceptions of the EU.
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