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Spitzenkandidaten: The Candidates No One Talks About

Interview with Morgan Guérin

INTERVIEW - 21 May 2019

While the campaign for the European elections is in full swing in the 28 Member States, the main candidates for the position of President of the European Commission have confronted each other on three occasions, in televised debates. Those now known as the "Spitzenkandidaten" were thus able to defend the political programs of the parliamentary groups they represent. Morgan Guérin, specialist in European issues at Institut Montaigne, analyzes the main issues underlying these various debates.

How should we analyze the different debates organized between the "Spitzenkandidaten" in recent weeks?

First, it is worth noting that these three debates* were not very mediatized across the various Member States. National public opinions do not know these candidates well, nor the parliamentary groups they represent, and the discussions that have taken place in the past weeks have had little impact on voting intentions and, most probably, on electoral behavior. 

Moreover, some parties did not nominate a single candidate, and not all were represented in all three debates, thus illustrating the instability and complexity of the European democratic process. It is also worth mentioning that some Member States or European regions are over-represented while others are entirely absent. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands hold the candidates of the key parliamentary groups, while the southern European states, the Baltic States, Eastern Europe and even France or Italy are completely absent.

Some Member States or European regions are over-represented while others are entirely absent.

In addition, the vast majority of the "Spitzenkandidaten" are professionals working in European institutions. Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans are currently European Commissioners, and most of the other candidates sit in the Strasbourg Parliament. Despite their willingness to avoid being too technical and to express concrete political ideas that respond to the expectations of European citizens, their analyses and positions largely reflect the discussions that have taken place over the past five years in Brussels. Their approach is thus sometimes distant from the political debates engaged in Member States.

A comparison with the debates organized between the top lists in France is therefore enlightening. In France, candidates have so far mainly differed in their views on the role of France in Europe, the functioning of the EU and its current failings. Meanwhile at the European level, the discussions have so far primarily focused on the supposed limits of the policies pursued by the Union. This telling difference in both topics and approaches partly explains the lack of public interest in the ongoing process of appointing the next President of the European Commission. 

The organization of these debates, the rigidity of speaking times, and the respect of these times by candidates also add to the lack of embodiment and may play into the image of a watered-down political life. Candidates very rarely have enough time to express structured thoughts and many of their speeches sound more like slogans than real programs inspired by an analysis of the situation and a strategic vision. The limited interaction between candidates also prevents the audience from grasping the personality of the politicians involved. Furthermore, the candidates make sure they do not refer to any characteristics specific to national cultures and interests in their speeches, as is customary for a European politician.

What are the candidates’ political differences?

The highlight of these debates is undoubtedly the predominance of climate and environmental issues. All candidates have emphasized the urgent need to act quickly and effectively in these areas, echoing the actions led by civil society during these campaign weeks. This may give the impression of an overbid. The main political divide on this issue is between supporters of climate and environmental policies aiming for social justice and redistribution (notably represented by the Greens, the liberals and the socialists), and the conservative parties, and in particular the EPP, who highlight the need for a gradual approach in order to limit the possible negative impacts of such policies on the competitiveness of the continent and its companies.

Economic and social issues have also been prominent in these discussions. It is interesting to note that the debate on these matters still builds on the continuity of the financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis and the austerity policies that have been implemented in various countries. Despite there being no French candidate, analyses of the Yellow Vest movement flourished. This suggests that the latter may have been perceived as a wake up call, which could be understood as the consequence of a rise in inequalities and of the impoverishment of a significant part of the population.

The highlight of these debates is undoubtedly the predominance of climate and environmental issues.

As this election involves all 28 EU Member States, and thus includes candidates from countries that have not adopted the single currency, the analysis of the institutional functioning of the euro, and of monetary and economic policies responding to the Eurozone crisis is often unfairly overlooked, given the importance of these issues for the economic prosperity of the main Member States. Finally, all candidates seem to agree on the need to effectively tax the American and Chinese digital giants, in accordance with the wishes of public opinion. With one exception, the opposition of the European Council on this issue has not been debated or analyzed, thus illustrating the difficult translation of European institutional games, which public opinion has not yet managed to fully grasp, into political discussions.

In line with the results of the vast majority of pan-European surveys, migration issues have been widely debated. Migration has been at the heart of the discourses held by many Eurosceptic right-wing movements and governments since the 2015 crisis. In just a few years, it has become the most divisive issue in European political life. Czech leader Jan Zahradil spoke on behalf of the ECR group and expressed his party's strong opposition to the mandatory redistribution mechanism for asylum seekers decided in 2015. Following the spirit of the latter policy, most of the other candidates called for greater solidarity between Member States, which still seems unrealistic due to the opposition of many capitals. 

The Union's place in the world and its priorities in terms of foreign policy were also discussed. In this category, transatlantic relations, as long as the relationship with Russia often came up, while the strategy to be adopted with the EU's neighborhood - which is of prime importance in view of the growing number of crises - and the relationship with China were mostly avoided. One might also regret the fact that so little time has been devoted to the terrorist threat or to industrial and budgetary defense policies. In these different areas, the absence of a French candidate, who we might expect to be more sensitive to these issues, was felt.

Given the picture you just painted, how do you see European political life evolving over the next five years?

The "Spitzenkandidaten" process is not yet fully established in the EU's institutional functioning. In particular, the French President and the German Chancellor are opposed to it. For the French President, this process must follow from the existence of genuine transnational lists for the European Parliament, a project that has failed so far despite Paris' support. It is therefore quite possible that none of the candidates who have attended these debates will become President of the European Commission. The European Council and Parliament will jointly make this decision, which will undoubtedly stem from complex negotiations, in particular between France and Germany. The very existence of this uncertainty has made the exercise of these debates somewhat artificial, and explains why they have not had the expected impact. 

The current projections for the future European Parliament do not seem to deeply challenge current political dynamics. The emergence of new parties in Parliament, starting with La République en marche, does not seem sufficient to entirely reshuffle the composition of European parliamentary groups. However, according to opinion polls, the future Parliament will be even more fragmented than the current one, and the future President of the Commission could be the representative of an alliance of parliamentary groups.

European political life will certainly continue to evolve significantly over the next five years, punctuated by national elections and multiple crises.

The next European Commission will have to deal with an increasingly complex and unstable European political landscape, where non-traditional political forces (both to the left and to the right of Parliament) will probably be strengthened by the elections. These new forces are progressively succeeding in sustainably reshaping public debates, in defining the agenda and, ultimately, in significantly influencing the narratives employed by key political leaders.

European political life will certainly continue to evolve significantly over the next five years, punctuated by national elections and multiple crises. Several phenomena could influence contemporary political history: the absence of British elected representatives and officials in European institutions, the multiplication of regional alliances between Member States (such as the Visegrád Group or the new Hanseatic League), but also the possible breakdown of the Franco-German relationship. As in the past, the European Commission and its President will continue to invest important efforts to defend European unity. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this institution will succeed in meaningfully impacting the public debate and the political, if not diplomatic, relationships between Member States. 


*The "Maastricht Debate 2019", organized by Politico on 29 April 2019, was attended by the following candidates: Bas Eickhout (European Green Party), Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists), Violeta Tomić (Party of the European Left), Guy Verhofstadt, (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), Jan Zahradil (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe)

On 2 May, the European University Institute of Florence and the Financial Times organized a new debate in the Tuscan city, with: Ska Keller (European Green Party), Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists) Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), Manfred Weber (European People's Party)

Finally, the last debate was held on 15 May, in the Chamber of the European Parliament, with the following candidates: Nico Cué (Party of the European Left), Ska Keller (European Green Party), Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists) Margrethe Vestager  (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), Manfred Weber (European People's Party), Jan Zahradil (Reformists Alliance of Europe)


Copyright : Aris Oikonomou / AFP


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