“If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion” – George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press
‘Spitzenkandidaten’ (top candidate), what does this German compound noun that’s been floating around the European People’s Party since 2002 have to do with our EU debate?
The answer to that question is a good amount, as Spitzenkandidaten was a change during the 2014 European Parliamentary elections that ameliorated the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Commission. Before going any further I should disclaim that I am someone who is ambivalent and undecided on the issue of Brexit (I won’t be coming out of booth belting the Ode to Joy or Rule Britannia), furthermore I’m also someone who has problems with Commission, namely it solely possessing the power of legislative initiative in a de jure sense. However I feel inclined to write this piece as the discussion about the Commission in the UK Media fails to bear this recent reform in mind, and thus is un-nuanced, out of date and quite misleading.
In 2014, for the first time in the EU’s history, the head of the Commission was decided not just upon agreement by the 28 heads of the EU’s member states, but rather by public election. Jean Claude Junker is the head of the European Commission as his party bloc “The European People’s Party” won the European Parliamentary elections with a plurality of seats. During this election campaign most European voters were made aware that they were not just voting for the MEPS to represent them, but also for whom they’d like to see as head of the Commission; this was achieved not just through standard campaigning, but also through televised debates between the ‘top candidates’ themselves. Thus when one casted their vote for say the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left in that election, you’d consequently be endorsing Alexis Tsipras (now prime minister of Greece) as your ‘top candidate’. This new system bolstered public propensity to turn out.
After the election result came to fruition, five out of seven of the coalition of parties in the parliament (Cameron’s ECR and the Eurosceptic EFDD disagreed with the process and Junker himself) issued a statement saying that Juncker has the mandate to now attempt to form the necessary majority. Herman Van Rompuy (then president of the EU Council) entered consultations with Juncker and the other party leaders, as a representative of the 28 heads of state who mostly constitute the now formalised European Council. Due to the Treaty of Lisbon though, Van Rompuy in his role could only suggest strategic priorities for the commission, in addition to keeping the results of the election in mind throughout the consultation process.
Juncker formed an agreement with the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (the second largest group in the parliament), the very group who first put forth a ‘Spitzenkandidaten‘ (Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament) in 2013 (the EPP didn’t do so until late 2013, in spite of the internal opposition they faced ex supra, from Matriarch Merkel of mittleuropa herself). The Council itself then made history when David Cameron and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban voted against the nomination, breaking the Council consensus, but nevertheless not stopping the Juncker nomination receiving the council’s stamp of legitimacy. Juncker and subsequently his political programme was then further legitimised by the European parliament (whose groups he met and spoke with individually) who voted in favour of electing him (the result saw 422 vote in favour, which is significantly more than the 376 naturally required).
If during the 2014 European parliamentary elections, you’d gone up to one of the minority of Britons voting and said ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, you might have received some perplexed looks. Why wasn’t the new Spitzenkandidaten facet of this election out in the open in the UK like it was in other nations?
For a start the Liberal Democrats and Labour who both are members of prominent coalition blocs, chose to keep quiet about their top candidates, as both of their top candidates are vocal integrationists/federalists; for the Lib Dems this was particularly important as their candidate was none other than Guy Verhofsdtat, the very man Tony Blair successfully blocked from becoming commission president years ago. The Tories left the European People’s Party in 2009 and formed the aforementioned European Conservatives and Reformists, a smaller more marginalised collection of parties that opted not to field a Spitzenkandidaten (the same is also true for UKIP).
Only the Greens seemed to acknowledge their candidate. Furthermore as this spreadsheet from the Economist shows, the top candidates stayed pretty clear of the UK throughout their touring/campaigning. All this has caused a dichotomy to emerge between us and Germany in terms of how popular opinion views the commission presidency. LSE Professor Simon Hix and University of Liverpool Professor Stuart Wilks-Heeg studied how often the names of the top candidates and references to the new process in general cropped up in the German media, and then cross-referenced such with the near non-existent corresponding data for the UK.
This poor coverage by the UK press caused confusion over the appointment of Juncker, meaning when David Cameron tried to subvert this new system and have it revert back to nation states making back-room appointments, much of the British public were left unaware of how their leader was seeking to spite a pan-European, democratic process that had engaged countless European Citizens; a process from which UK politicians shouldn’t have shied away to include their constituents. The case study of Spain is indicative of just how important press coverage of Spitzenkandidaten is, since the more coverage it received the more positively engaged their citizens became in the new Spitzenkandidaten process. Spitzenkandidaten isn’t perfect but its a step in the right direction, and a step the public deserve to know has occurred if we want to further foment an accurate and rigorous EU debate.
Spitzenkandidaten is just another example of how our mainstream press disregards its onus, and fails to capture how dynamic the EU is, instead they choose to persistently characterise it as a distant and stagnant monolith, thus failing to critically engage with it in the way other national presses do (for more detail on this and its negative effects I’d recommend this piece by Professor Christoph Meyer, which notably reveals that most of the UK population feel that the press is leaving them greatly uninformed on the EU). With this looming over our Brexit debate it’s no surprise that both sides of said disputation find a lot of their arguments blemished by extrapolative hyperbole, Rumsfeldian Known Unknowns and unsubstantiated platitudes, such often being irrelevant in light of contemporary developments.
To illustrate an example of this take how those who wish for us to remain in the EU will assert ad infinitum that tight EU membership makes us more lucrative and better off in the realms of trade and foreign direct investment. One can counterpoise this not only with a 2013 Ernst & Young attractiveness poll conducted with 2000 multinationals that found 72% of the companies interviewed in North America, 66% of those interviewed in Asia and even 38% of those interviewed in Western Europe favoured the UK loosening its relationship with the EU.
Furthermore, one can also cite the fact that China struck a monumental free trade deal with Switzerland ahead of us and the EU, as well as the fact we have a current account deficit with the EU but a current account surplus with the rest of the world. Civitas also recently published a report that challenged the exaggerations made by pro-EU figures, in regards to the positive effects of the Single Market and the effects of EU membership on our trade. This all serves as evidence that truly tight EU membership is not imperative to our economic development. That example is just another way of showing a tired claim that incessantly loiters (often unopposed) in EU debate, however this time I chose one in support of Euroscepticism for the sake of fairness, something the BBC seemingly isn’t affording them according to this new IEA report on the BBC.
If you’re like me and are undecided, but find a lot of the EU discussions you encounter in the mainstream media and in wasteful letters posted to your house insipid, nebulous and unbalanced, I’d thoroughly recommend this debate the Spectator conducted. All the speakers have arguments that contain depth and relevant referencing (for the most part), they also have fruitful discussion with a great audience. Moreover it was also chaired by the brilliant Andrew Neil. Honestly it’s a shame it wasn’t televised.
Many support and talk of EU reform. If we hope to facilitate and support conversations of reform, we need to actually acknowledge when the EU does try and reform, if not it becomes no surprise that so much of the public come to believe reform is impossible and off the cards.
For more on the Spitzenkandidaten process, its history, the Cameron-Merkel debacle and interviews with the top candidates themselves, I’d recommend this short documentary.