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Will Europe’s Spitzenkandidat spark its politics back to life?

European Commission negotiator Michel Barnier arrives at 10 Downing Street for talks with Brexit Secretary David Davis. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Why Brexit is just one of the challenges that the EU will face over the coming years.

This autumn will see not only the end of the Brexit negotiations but also the beginning of the process to select the leadership team which will shape the European Union for the next five years.

We will get a hint of what that shape might be in November, when the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) meets to select its Spitzenkandidat, the man or woman who will head the party’s list as it goes into the May 2019 European Parliament’s elections and the individual, therefore, who will become the Commission president, should the party win. At some point, their rivals on the left, in the Party of European Socialists (PES), will select their own Spitzenkandidat. The term, a typical German compound word meaning ‘lead, or main candidate’, entered the EU lexicon in 2013 when the process was first adopted by the PES (the EPP took it up later that year) with the intention of democratising the way the president was chosen.

Despite this laudable aim, the selection of a Spitzenkandidat hasn’t really caught the imagination on this side of the Channel – until this year. This time around, although the British will not be getting a say in the election, the identity of the Spitzenkandidat will become an increasingly scrutinised topic for the UK. For this will be the individual who will perhaps do more than any other to shape the relationship between Britain and Europe in those first, post-Brexit years.

Last time around, in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker received the EPP nomination over Michel Barnier. But the French former minister and two-time commissioner is considered to have had a good Brexit, so far, and many now assume that this time he is in pole position to succeed Juncker for the top job. It means Barnier must wind-up the Article 50 process no later than October, not just to give governments, the European parliament and the House of Commons six months to accept or ratify the deal, but to make sure he is clear of the Brexit process to concentrate on his campaign.

In those Brexit talks, Barnier has completely out-manoeuvred his opposite number, David Davis, to the extent that Theresa May parachuted in a trusted civil servant, Oliver Robbins, to take a firmer grasp of the negotiations. Brexiteers have, in turn, responded over the course of the talks, with insults to Barnier, which they may come to regret, should this mild-mannered centrist ascend to the very top of the EU.

On the left, where the PES is still looking at exactly how to handle its own Spitzenkandidat process, there seems less certainty over who might get the selection. In 2014, Martin Schulz got the nomination, at a time when both he and the mighty German SPD machine were overwhelmingly dominant (although Britain’s Labour Party was so terrified of the anti-EU passions being unleashed by UKIP, the Conservative Party and the press that then party leader Ed Miliband banned the German from visiting Britain to campaign). As in 2014, when the party pioneered the system, the PES is looking to innovate, to engage its membership and the electorate. In a paper for the PES think-tank, FEPS, Ania Skrzypek, has suggested that a system of primaries to chose a Spitzenkandidat and even nominees for the Commission, which she argues might help increase support and enthusiasm within PES party membership.

Whoever does get the job will have more than just the aftermath of Brexit to deal with. There is also the lagging problems of democratic involvement in the EU project, which the Spitzenkandidat process itself does not seem to have solved. When Juncker was chosen as EPP Spitzenkandidat in March 2014, the CDU in Germany campaigned for him by putting a picture of Angela Merkel on all its European parliament election posters. Germans voted Merkel, then still at the height of her popularity, and got Juncker.

This reflects an enduring problem for the European elections – they remain part of national political processes. The wait for the rise of a European demos – a sense of common identity and political culture reaching into towns and villages across the continent – still goes on but remains a will-o’-the-wisp. Participation in European parliament elections has declined in every year since the first in 1979 – down from 62% three decades ago to 42.5% in 2014, when just 27% of 18-24-year-olds voted.

The winning Spitzenkandidat may also face the challenge of a diminished political base. The loss of 73 British MEPs. But even apart from this, centrifugal forces are at work among Europe’s electorates. It is likely that in Germany the hard-right AfD will do well, buoyed not only by its traditional anti-Merkel, anti-immigrant, anti-Brussels voters, but also those dismayed by the new ‘grand coalition’ between the Social Democratic Party and the centre-right CDU. On the day the deal was announced, a poll showed the Social Democrats’ support at 16%, with the CDU at 33%. Die Zeit reported that some 15% of trade union members – normally utterly loyal SPD voters – had switched to the AfD. Now Merkel and the SPD have formed a coalition to carry on as before, an easy way to punish both parties will be by voting AfD next May.

Romania’s Social Democrat MEPs, who represent a solid chunk of the PES group, could also see their numbers fall, amid allegations about corruption among the party’s politicians. Elsewhere, the PES faces a fundamental problem that so many of its member parties are simply flat on their back, after electoral disasters.

The latest poor showing was in Italy, earlier this month, but the difficulties are evident elsewhere. In Spain, the new leftist party Podemos has eaten into the existing PES affiliate, PSOE, and in Greece Syriza has replaced the old socialist party PASOK (even if the paradox is that Syriza is more obedient to orders from Brussels and the IMF Washington consensus than any previous Greek government). The strongest PES party right now is Britain’s Labour Party, which performed above expectations in last summer’s election, has 500,000 members and hopes to win big in key local council elections in early May. But Jeremy Corbyn’s party is out of EU politics, just as its leader does not seem particularly interested in Europe.

Another threat to the dominance of the two main groups – and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – is their possible loss of French MEPs. These elections will be Emmanuel Macron’s first major electoral test since his conquest of the presidency and national assembly last spring. He is putting together a European parliament list under his En Marche banner and most Paris political experts see him performing well. Yet Macron got only 24% of first round votes in April 2017. He has lost by-elections held early in 2018 and next May will offer an opportunity for French voters of the left and right to register some checks on their Jupiterian president.

Macron has sent envoys to talk to smaller centrist parties with a chance of getting seats in the European Parliament who might then form a new parliamentary group with En Marche MEPs. If this does happen it will further increase the number of parties in the parliament, which – added to the expected increase in the number of smaller groups with populist and openly anti-EU agendas – will make for a particularly fissiparous politics in Brussels and Strasbourg. The days when the big two – the EPP and PES, with occasional input from ALDE – could decide key posts and often come to decisions in backroom deals certainly seem doomed.

It is hardly surprising, then, that experts in the parliament’s secretariat on eighth floor of its Brussels building reckon that no single party will get more than 140 seats. Given the slump of the centre-left, the EPP is expected to get closest, meaning its Spitzenkandidat will be in the dominant position. But what if, as seems entirely possible, the party cannot get quite enough seats to get its man, or woman, into the top job? Would Macron and his centrist group automatically endorse him or her? And at what price? The EPP currently has all the top jobs in Europe bar the foreign policy high representative and the Eurogroup presidency. They will be lucky to continue such dominance.

The current rules stipulate that the man or women who is nominated by the EU Council as Commission president has to get a majority of MEPs – 353 in 2019 – voting in favour. If, as is likely, the new parliament has all sorts of members from parties outside the traditional fold, and the dominance of the big three evaporates, it may be that the first candidate put up by the European Council is rejected. In short, the hopes that the Spitzenkandidat system would lead to a democratisation of European politics would not have been realised.

There are those who believe the process inherently blocks this happening anyway, with critics arguing that it still favours the EPP über Alles, putting far too much power in the hands of the party’s congress. The new Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, dismissively said he had never heard of the Spitzenkandidat system, and it can leave other national ruling parties, such as those in Poland and Greece, wholly disconnected from the centre of the EU’s power structures.

British leaders like Tony Blair, who took European politics seriously, have long argued that the best way to link EU decision making to voters would be to associate national parliaments with the European parliament, by creating a second chamber of members to represent the national state interest. But with our departure from the EU that argument will fall away, yet another downside of Brexit – for the EU, as much as the UK. Another will be the loss of our MEPs who, other than UKIP rent-a-quote eccentrics, mostly have a high reputation for hard work and better parliamentary performance than those of other countries. That talent and influence will be sorely missed.

Without them, among MEPs who take their seats after May 2019, there is likely to be little sympathy – other than from the extremist anti-European parties – for the UK as it attempts to find its feet, following its departure from the EU next March. Indeed, we can expect harsh anti-Brexit language from all Spitzenkandidats in next spring’s election.

In the next five-year cycle of the EU, from 2019 to the next European elections in 2024, there will be many difficult Brexit questions to resolve. But whoever is in charge in Brussels, whether it is the familiar Barnier or another successful Spitzenkandidat, will have other major challenges to occupy them. And in all this, it is fair to say that the UK will come near the bottom of their priorities.

• Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe who writes on European Union policy and politics. His latest book is ‘Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe’ (IB Tauris)

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