A majority of the new European Parliament will insist on following the Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” system for choosing the next European Commission president, the outgoing Parliament President Antonio Tajani said Tuesday.
“A majority of the groups support the Spitzenkandidat position,” Tajani declared in a statement that he described as a message to the 28 heads of state and government in the European Council, who will meet over dinner in Brussels later in the day to begin deliberations on the EU’s future leadership.
The Spitzenkandidat system envisions that the Council should nominate for Commission president someone who stood as a lead candidate for a pan-European alliance of parties in the European Parliament election, likely the candidate of the party that won the most seats. The Council has insisted it cannot be bound by that system.
Tajani spoke to reporters in a basement foyer of Parliament after meeting with the leaders of the different political groups, including the parties that are expected to form a large, pro-EU governing coalition: Tajani’s own center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens.
But in his statement Tajani did not mention that the liberals, who are planning to create a new centrist group with French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche party, have declared their opposition to the lead candidate system.
Guy Verhofstadt, the ALDE group leader, has cited the failure to implement a system of transnational candidate lists as reason to abandon the Spitzenkandidatsystem. In its current form, the liberals insist the system benefits the EPP and its lead candidate, the German MEP Manfred Weber.
“The EPP is pushing hard for the Spitzenkandidaten-system, but unfortunately they killed its legitimacy when they voted against transnational lists. They try to ride to power on a horse that they already slaughtered themselves,” Verhofstadt said in a statement on Tuesday.
“A Spitzen-candidate that you cannot vote for in the whole of Europe is simply not serious. For us it is important that the next President of the Commission is representing a broad pro-European majority with a clear programme to renew Europe.”
The statements came as battle lines were drawn between groups in the legislature and between Parliament leaders and the Council, which is responsible for nominating the Commission president. The Council nomination must then be confirmed by a majority of Parliament.
Parliament has adopted a resolution saying it stands ready to reject any nominee that had not campaigned as a “lead candidate.”
Although the EPP came first in the election, with a provisional 180 seats in the 751-member chamber, it is not in a position to call all the shots. It is clinging to a narrow plurality in the Parliament, and it is a minority within the pro-EU coalition, with the Socialists, liberals and Greens together controlling more than 320 seats. By treaty, the Council is only required to make a nomination, voting by qualified majority, and “taking account” of the election result.
Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian co-leader of the Greens group, said there was no majority in Parliament behind a single candidate for the Commission presidency.
“The European Council should be patient if it wants to engage constructively with the European Parliament,” he told reporters after emerging from the meeting with his fellow group chieftains.
Udo Bullmann, the German leader of the Socialist group, was even more confrontational. “If I was the European Council, I would realize this is a very self-confident European Parliament that has been elected,” he declared.
Weber has tried to position himself as the frontrunner with the best claim to the EU’s top job, but the Socialists, liberals and Greens are insisting that the EPP’s monopoly on the EU’s top jobs must be broken.
In the latest worrying sign for Weber, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa came out publicly and strongly against him on Tuesday, saying he should never be president. Costa has cited Weber’s statements and positions during the effort to address the financial crisis in Portugal as reason for disqualifying him.
In another setback, one of Weber’s top backers in the European Council, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, was ousted in a no-confidence vote on Monday.
In his own comments to reporters, Weber sought on Tuesday to convey some humility and referenced the fact that the EPP, even while finishing first, had lost a large number of seats in this year’s election.
In a sign of the tough politics, Weber said the focus should now turn to platforms and policy. “From now on we have to speak about content,” he said.
“Now it’s up to the decision-making process in the Council,” Weber said. “The EPP party is ready for all the necessary compromise … we know we lost seats.”
“We are starting the dialogue,” Weber added. “A very strong majority confirmed that Parliament is the place for the decision-making process in the future.”
The liberals were not the only ones to throw up a roadblock in front of Weber’s bid.
Jan Zahradil, the lead candidate of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group, wrote on Twitter: “If Manfred Weber believes he’s the only candidate for Commission president, I say to him: ‘No, you’re not.'”
Zahradil accused his fellow members of Parliament of making a power grab, writing that their “grip for power should be stopped. They’ve got already enough.”