Every Irish Labour Party member to get a vote on our candidate for next EU Commission President

The race is just starting for the European Elections of 2019. Parties across Europe are now in the process of choosing who to put forward as candidates for the European Parliament. Backroom staff have commenced the process of drafting European-wide manifestos. Another key issue for the parties is to decide on who will be the party’s lead candidate for the President of the Commission, the SpitzenKandidat.

The current Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, is the first Commission President to be chosen based on the SpitzenKandidat system.

Introduced as part of the Lisbon Treaty, the Spitzenkandidat concept is that the European-wide political party which gains the highest number of seats at the European Parliamentary elections then has its lead candidate ratified as Commission President by the Union’s Heads of States.

Last time around in 2014 the European Peoples Party (EPP) gained the highest number of seats in the European Parliament. Their Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, was therefore put forward by the Parliament for approval by the Heads of States. The other Spitzenkandidaten, the Party of European Socialists (PES) nominee Martin Shultz, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) candidate Guy Verhofstadt, were both excluded based on their respective party’s performance.

The PES is now deciding on how to pick our Skitzenkandidat for next year’s election. A Working Group has been convened under the Chairmanship of Ruairi Quinn. The Working Group comprises of one member from each Member State. I serve as the Irish member. We met recently to agree on some initial steps.

Our proposal is that nominations will open in October. If there is more than one candidate then there will be an election. Every member of affiliated parties across Europe will have a vote.

In practice, this means that each member of the Irish Labour Party will be able to cast a vote, most likely online, for our nominee for the President of the Commission.

Currently there are a number of names being suggested. Frans Timmermans, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and current First Vice-President of the Commission is one name that is often heard. So too is Frederica Mogherini, who is the High Representative of the European Union from Foreign Affairs and Security. Other less-well known names are also being suggested, such as the Portuguese MEP Maria Joao Rodrigues.

What seems certain is that there will be a contest. A key concern of the Working Group is that the contest concludes and our nominee is chosen with sufficient time for them to start making themselves known across the Union.

The Working Group also discussed the issue of alliances with other European parties. For instance, if no single party gets a majority in the Parliament, should the Spitzenkandidat come from the party with the highest number of seats, or should they come from a coalition of parties? The wording in the Lisbon Treaty is unclear in relation to this, and the Heads of States are suggesting that they may not be bound by the candidate put forward by the Parliament. No doubt there will be significant horse-trading going on post-election.

The weekend of the 25 May 2019 will see hundreds of millions of Europeans go to the polls to vote for their party and candidate of choice for the European Parliament. The Spitzenkandidat process has the opportunity to increase and deepen democracy within the European Union. But it can only do that if electors across the Union have time to familiarise themselves with the candidates and their policies in advance of casting their vote.