The elections for the European Parliament will take place across the European Union on 6-9 June 2024. The campaigns are in full swing, but not without controversy. The effectiveness of the Spitzenkandidaten system is still being questioned, the (far-)right is gaining momentum ahead of the elections, and domestic issues might influence voters casting the ballots. The elections are, therefore, one to keep an eye on.

The basics

The elections for the European Parliament give citizens of the European Union the ability to directly elect their representatives. These elections take place every five years. The number of seats allocated to a country is based on the population size of the corresponding country. National political parties take part in the elections, although many are nowadays also affiliated with European-wide political parties. Not every country, however, has the same voting system, meaning there are variations in how people can cast their vote. 

Inside the European Parliament, Members of European Parliament (MEPs) sit in political groups organised by political affiliation, not nationality. Currently, there are seven political groups in the Parliament, although there are also individual MEPs who do not belong to any of the seven political groups. After the elections, MEPs work together to form political groups, and during the first plenary session, the President of the European Parliament is elected. Subsequently, a new President of the European Commission is elected. Even later, the College of Commissioners will be examined and approved. 

Current issues 

The Treaty of Lisbon first introduced the idea of Spitzenkandidaten, with the idea behind it being that the appointment of the President of the European Commission would be more transparent, and voters could cast their preference. This would be achieved by Spitzenkandidaten being put forward in advance by each major European-wide political party, making these candidates actively participate in the elections. The party securing the most seats would then get the right to have their Spitzenkandidat approved by the European Parliament. In sum, voters could now directly influence who would become President of the European Commission by casting their vote.

The year the Spitzenkandidaten system was first introduced as part of the election campaign – 2014 – provided the first example of a Spitzenkandidat being appointed. Jean-Claude Juncker’s European People’s Party (EPP) acquired the largest number of seats and he thus became the new President of the European Commission. Enthusiasts proclaimed that this new system would bring European politics, which tends to be abstract, closer to the European citizens. However, five years later, the system took a major hit when Ursula von der Leyen, who was not a Spitzenkandidat, was presented as a proponent for the position of President of the European Commission by leaders of the EU and state leaders. The European Parliament saw this as an insult to the democratic notion behind European politics and the system of Spitzenkandidaten, resulting in von der Leyen being approved by the tinniest margin ever recorded – just nine votes.

The idea of Spitzenkandidaten still faces uncertainty, but parties are currently nominating their lead candidates for the elections in June. Incumbent President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has been appointed by the EPP as their Spitzenkandidat, making her stand for re-election. Polls are currently predicting the EPP will win the most seats, making it possible for von der Leyen to serve a second term.

Spitzenkandidaten and the (far-)right

It remains to be seen whether the Spitzenkandidaten system proves effective in bringing the European elections closer to European citizens. In many member states, European elections have a significantly lower turnout than national elections. However, when the voter turnout is high, the voters tend to vote based on national issues, and often in protest of sitting leaders.

Voting based on national issues could pose a problem for EPP’s challenger, Renew Europe, the European Parliament’s third-largest political group. Renew Europe, which consists of MEPs from two liberal parties on the European level, and consists of, among others, parties that provide the president of France and the caretaker prime minister of The Netherlands. The latter, Mark Rutte, is a member of the VVD, the party which is holding coalition talks on the national level of politics with far-right politician Geert Wilders. This can be seen as a paradox since Renew Europe has been advocating a pro-European message ahead of the European elections, even warning against collaboration with far-right parties. The (far-)right is gaining momentum across Europe, threatening to take the current third place of Renew Europe in the European Parliament, as shown in the polls

In a later phase, after the European elections, this could pose a problem for the EPP as well. According to the polls, Ursula von der Leyen’s EPP is set to win the largest amount of seats. As explained above, according to the Spitzenkandidaten system, the EPP would then gain the right to have Ursula von der Leyen approved by the European Parliament for the role of President of the European Commission. In a polarised European Parliament, it, however, remains to be seen how von der Leyen’s presidential bid would be approved and whether any concessions would have to be made. However, for now, this remains up to speculation.

In conclusion, it remains to be seen to what extent the Spitzenkandidaten can bring the European elections closer to European citizens and to what extent domestic issues and the (far-)right will have an effect on the elections and the later process of appointing the President of the European Commission. However, it can be safely said that the election campaigns for the upcoming European elections in early June are in full swing, and only the outcome of the elections will provide an answer to the speculations about the current state of the political spectrum.

Photo by Guillaume Périgois via unsplash.com