The Spitzenkandidat is back


The most persistent misconception about the European Union’s inability to deal with its illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary is the idea that the EU does not have the legal tools to deal with these democratic retrogrades .

He does and always has. But you have to use tools. And the most effective way to achieve this is to ensure that a Spitzenkandidat leads the European Commission.

There is a naïve image in the minds of some commentators in which a good European Commission is fighting against bad illiberal Member States. The fact is that these illiberal regimes get away with it because the commission lets them.

And the commission gets away with its inaction, because the European Parliament does not have enough power over it. The persistence of illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland is not separate but rather a symptom of the EU’s own constitutional malaise.

In a speech last summer in Prague, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz once again proclaimed that the EU still needed another ‘new way to start infringement proceedings’, as if it had no not currently tools needed.

But of course it is.

Old, such as infringement procedures and Article 7 procedures, or relatively new, such as conditionality regulatory procedures and withholding of recovery funds, to name a few. .

The problem is rather that the application of these enforcement mechanisms depends at one time or another on politics.

And the EU Council of Ministers, the European Council and the Commission, at key moments, continue to choose to act half-heartedly, selectively, late or not at all.

In some cases, their inaction even borders on illegality, a violation of their own rules. In other cases, the commission behaves in a legal way, strictly speaking, but its inaction leads to long-term damage.

It’s still a mystery, for example, how the commission’s legal concerns over a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Hungary were suddenly resolved in 2016.

Democratic accountability structures are meant to provide institutional incentives. If a committee chair receives power primarily from the politically expedient and complacent European Council, then the behavior of the chair will most likely follow that of the European Council.

On the other hand, if the European Parliament – which has been much more assertive in defending democracy – plays the main role in legitimizing the president, then we can rather expect the president to follow the parliament – not if only for the sole reason of being re-elected as chairman of the commission for another five years and remaining on good terms with the boss.

This was the brainchild behind the so-called “head of list” (in German “Spitzenkandidat”) system of the largest grouping of political parties in the European Parliament becoming committee chair.

That’s it. That’s all it is.

But this small change means that the president now receives political legitimacy mainly from parliament. Despite its protests, the European Commission is not an apolitical body.

It has a monopoly on the elaboration of new European laws; it has a political program in its own policy areas. Its members are mostly high-level politicians. Its character and powers make it more like a government cabinet than a technocratic regulatory agency.

The question is therefore not whether it is political (it is by design), but where it derives its political legitimacy.

And on the question of how to deal with the crisis of illiberal regimes in the EU, the European Council and the European Parliament diverge — by a lot. Parliament has attempted strategically to uphold the founding values ​​of liberal democracy; the European Council tried to protect the autonomy of the member states even at the cost of the founding democratic values ​​of the EU.

The Commission landed between the two, continually dying hope that it would finally side with Parliament. It is not — and it will continue to disappoint those who believe in the founding values ​​of the EU.

This is not a moral statement, but an institutional prediction. If you really want change and not just harsh Twitter messages, then a strategic plan should be put in place to restore the Spitzenkandidat by 2024.

There is no need to change the treaty. The current legal framework already allows this; therefore, it requires “only” political work.

The idea first emerged during the 2014 European Parliament elections, but member state governments then short-sightedly abandoned it in 2019 in a chaotic and opaque series of events.

And the European Parliament let them off the hook. This change was a huge setback for EU democracy and was an erosion phenomenon in itself.

A coalition of member state governments and willing MEPs are expected to announce – today – that they want to follow the Spitzenkandidat system. This step alone would be helpful both in rescuing the EU from its own illiberal regimes and in ending its own malaise of democratic accountability.

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