A boring Spitzenkandidat can’t bring Europeans together

, by Juuso Järviniemi

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A boring Spitzenkandidat can't bring Europeans together
Debate between lead candidates for European Commission presidency at the European Parliament in Brussels, 15 May. Photo: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

For the second time in European elections, European-level parties have presented their lead candidates for Commission presidency (Spitzenkandidaten). The idea is for these candidates to lead the European-wide debate ahead of the elections. Afterwards, the one who is supported by a majority of the MEPs gets to lead the EU for the next five years.

Candidates of various parties have indeed toured Europe and collected messages from citizens. However, as long as national-level parties don’t take these campaigns seriously, the lead candidates face an uphill struggle. In this battle for space, platitudes aren’t enough: to be visible in 2024, the lead candidates should ensure they can bring personality, imagination and passion to the table.

Opposition to candidates within their own parties

Strikingly, both the EPP’s Manfred Weber and the social democrats’ Frans Timmermans have been subjected to harsh attacks from their own allies. Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party is still a part of the EPP, has stated directly that he won’t support Weber’s candidacy. On Thursday, Politico Europe reported that a lead figure of the Romanian social democratic party had shared a video of a song taunting Frans Timmermans.

These internal conflicts highlight an untenable ideological disunion within the biggest European-level parties. Instability is faced across the board: the future of the liberal ALDE and of the conservative and nationalist groups in the European Parliament is still uncertain. If the lead candidate system was meant to unite parties behind one voice, at least among the biggest parties the 2019 race can hardly be called a success. In 2014 already, the Spitzenkandidaten system had failed to bring national-level parties closer together under European mother parties’ banners.

Engaging with the public

In all fairness, pleasing Viktor Orbán or the Romanian social democrats is probably an impossible task. In general, who can’t agree with the basic values of his party should perhaps find a new one. But what about speaking to the electorate at large? This communication with the public, too, takes place through (sympathetic) national-level parties, directly or indirectly.

Manfred Weber advertises himself as a candidate who speaks directly with citizens both in his home village and across Europe. On his ‘Listening Tour’, he has visited countries across Europe and collected video statements from citizens. Frans Timmermans’s ‘Tour de Frans’ follows a similar idea, and the Greens’ two candidates Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout are also touring Europe.

The most clever element in the conservative Jan Zahradil’s campaign is a promotional video of the candidate in a recording studio, faithful to his slogan of “retuning the EU”. The European Left looks like they are not even trying: after his nomination in January, Nico Cué only created a Twitter profile in March, while Violeta Tomić has tweeted three times since last autumn.

The most imaginative and visually appealing campaign may indeed be Jan Zahradil’s – ironic in the sense that Zahradil himself is an outspoken ‘anti-federalist’. Though the imaginative element is mainly limited to a short campaign clip and a Twitter cover photo, and Zahradil’s tour of Europe has not been extensive, the conservative candidate’s campaign idea is the only one that complements a generic slogan with a bit of fun.

Winning space in national parties’ campaigns

The pathway to visibility almost necessarily flows through national-level parties. The media will only be interested if there’s mass mobilisation behind a campaign. That mobilisation, in turn, can occur either on the ground with the help of a national-level party, or on social media – ignited by a core group of faithful followers who are most likely to be existing party activists.

Viktor Orbán and his minions may be a lost cause, but a lead candidate should aspire to win the heartfelt support of at least most parties in the family. At the national level, a local party branch’s unwillingness to campaign for the leader would be a scandal. In European elections, the support still doesn’t come by itself – it has to be won.

For a European-level candidate, winning space in national-level parties’ campaigns is an uphill struggle. In the eyes of many party strategists, putting the spotlight on a candidate coming from another country and aiming for a top job is a liability rather than an advantage. A potential language barrier, and the sheer novelty of bringing in a politician from abroad, are inherent obstacles that need to be overcome. If on top of that the candidate is boring, they have no chance.

Just being ‘European’ is not enough to win fame, and thereby legitimacy. A successful Spitzenkandidat should also have something else to offer: that something can be personality, energy and passion.

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