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Was Jean-Claude Juncker elected president of the European Commission because he was the Spitzenkandidate for the winning party in the European elections? Or would be had been elected anyway?

That question is difficult – if not impossible – to answer, but there are things that indicate that it was his position as the lead candidate for his party that mattered. At least the tradition of electing a sitting prime minister was broken in the case of Juncker.

But one thing is more certain: It will be difficult next time around not accept the role of the Spitzenkandidate. Before the next European elections (in a little less than five years time) the idea that candidates must run to become the chosen of their parties will have been cemented, and even the sitting president will have to get his party’s approval if he wants a second term. This raises some issues.

Firstly, does it mean the EU has become a parliamentarian system? Yes, in the sense that the winning party decides the leader of the executive and Juncker has followed up on this by organising his Commission so that by far most of the leading Commissioners come from his own political family. And yes in the sense that the Parliament still has the final word in the appointment of Commissioners, and can give the Commission a vote of no confidence. But on day-to-day politics the European Parliament will have a lot less influence over the Commission than any national parliament will have on their government. The European Council will probably prove to become the institution that has most influence over the Commission during the next five years.

Secondly, are we ready for a system where the voters have a much bigger say over who leads the Commission? I don’t think so at this point. Clearly it is much better to have an open political competition than having everything decided behind closed doors. Clearly this system is much better if we want to involve European citizens in the EU and let them have a direct influence over the European leadership. But the main problem is that so few people actually discovered what was happening this time around! Nobody really believed it would matter who ran as spitzenkandidate, and national candidates in most cases did not at all refer to their lead candidates.

This latter point raises some issues about the European party structures. A conservative, a liberal or a socialist is not the same in Scandinavia as it is in Southern Europe. So far the name and the broad overall orientation have been good enough, but would you expect a clearly non federal oriented Nordic liberal advocating Guy Verhofstadt as the lead candidate for their European party?

Another point is the quality of the candidates. When the discussion in the European Council about the Commission president was running, Juncker’s competitors were the “usual lot”, so prime ministers in various European countries. But why did they not run as spitzenkandidate then?

The problem is that we still think national in Europe, and if a national leader would declare an interest in running for the European post – with the risk of loosing first at the party nominations and later in the elections themselves – they would have to give up their national posts. Declaring an interest in fighting openly and democratically for the post as head of the Commission would mean leaving the national post on the spot with the result of being relegated to absolutely nothing after the elections.

Europeans think national first of all even when they vote in European elections, and they are not used to think nationally and European at the same time, as for example Americans are. When Americans vote, they vote for their state representative, but also clearly make federal choices – between democrats and republicans. And at the same time they allow quality people to run for federal posts, and if they loose, it does not mean that they cannot continue in their job as for example senator from Arizona.

I think there are two real issues facing EU now: We have embarked on the spitzenkandidate route, but European voters are not yet ready to play their role, and secondly we have not yet devised a system that can ensure that we will get a real competition between the best possible candidates.

We have a bit less than five years to prepare ourselves better. Let’s move this debate now and not wait until the last moment.

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