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The Spitzenkandidat process and its implications for the UK in the EU

The 2014 European elections represent a deeply important moment for the EU, and for its member states. The introduction of a Spitzenkandidat process has created a new set of political and institutional dynamics. This piece considers the case of the UK, including the consequences of Cameron's opposition to Juncker and the nominaton of Jonathan Hill as European Commissioner.
Dr Simon Usherwood
1 October 2014
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Starts: Oct 1, 2014 12:00:00 AM

From Indyref to Indignados: how passions and politics mix

As Scotland heads to the polls, this piece discusses the extent to which emotions have arrived at the heart of contemporary politics – yet we still hesitate to admit it. Emotions can neither be banished nor ignored when we discuss what constitutes political communities, how political decisions should be made and political action springs into being. Yet to embrace the rise of emotional politics without acknowledging how intimately it is and should be entangled with reason equally risks undermining just political action.
Dr Uta Staiger
18 September 2014
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Starts: Sep 18, 2014 12:00:00 AM

10 things you need to know about what will happen if Scotland votes yes

As the Scottish independence referendum draws closer the outcome is hard to predict. Both Westminster politicians and the wider public are asking what – in practical terms – would happen if the Scots were to vote Yes. Robert Hazell offers a 10-point overview of what the road to independence might look like.
Professor Robert Hazell
9 September 2014
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Starts: Sep 9, 2014 12:00:00 AM

Brussels: a shifting landscape

19 June 2014

18 June 2014
The UK Higher Education International Unit has just published a short policy piece by Dr Christine Reh (UCL School of Public Policy) on the recent European Parliament elections and results.


On 22-25 May, Europe's citizens went to the polls to vote for a new European Parliament. Starting as an unelected assembly in the 1950s, the EP has been successively empowered to genuine co-legislator, shared budgetary authority and prominent player in the high politics of executive appointment. In short: EP elections matter. They matter, because the Parliament co-decides EU law with the national governments represented in the Council of Ministers, adding the voice of Europe's political parties, citizens and, often, public interest. They matter, because the Parliament, together with the EU's governments, approves the budget, routinely pushing for more resources on issues where EU-level spending can lead to more effective problem-solving and investment. And, for the first time in 2014, the EP elections may matter directly for the next European Commission's five-year policy-agenda.

In the UK, the main topic after the elections was the success of UKIP, winning 26.77% among the 36% who turned out to vote on 22 May. In France, the right-wing Eurosceptic Front National came first with 24.95%; in Greece, the far-left Eurocritical Syriza topped the polls with 26.6%. Yet, other EU countries saw the right-wing vote drop (Party for Freedom, The Netherlands) and the protest-vote reduced (Movimento 5 Stelle, Italy); in Germany, the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland did not break through. Overall, the incoming European Parliament looks like a balanced chamber; the exact majorities will depend on how the transnational political groups form over the next weeks, but the two biggest parties hold at least 221 (European People's Party) and 190 (Party of European Socialists) of the 751 seats. To find majorities on EU legislation, the new Parliament will need to rely more on "grand coalitions" than the outgoing legislature, but the chamber's day-to-day work is less likely to be dominated by confrontation over the EU's raison d'être and future direction than many had anticipated (and feared).

And yet, due to the new process of-and conflict over-the nomination of the next European Commission President, the 2014 EP elections may have more fundamental constitutional and political repercussions than any of the other seven direct elections since 1979.

A new clause in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty asks national governments to take the outcome of the EP elections "into account" when nominating the Commission President. This clause has been interpreted in a characteristically expansive way by the Parliament and its political parties. Ahead of this year's vote, "Europarties" nominated their candidates for the Presidency of the next Commission, expected to take office in the autumn. The Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker (Conservatives), the French-German duo José Bové and Ska Keller (Greens), the German Martin Schulz (Socialists), the Greek Alexis Tsipras (Far Left) and the Belgian Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals) campaigned on different policy-platforms, confronted each other in EU-wide televised debates, and, thus, gave the campaign the faces of Spitzenkandidaten.

In May, no political party won an outright majority. The centre-right European People's Party came first, and the Parliament-including the Socialists and their candidate Schulz-have backed Juncker accordingly; jointly the two groups would have a clear majority in the appointment vote. Constitutionally, Juncker's nomination by the EU's chancellors, prime ministers and presidents, and his subsequent election by the EP, would transform the complex balance between the EU's three main institutions (the Commission, the Council and the Parliament), de facto shifting the power to nominate from national governments to transnational parties, and (further) politicising the supposedly technocratic and independent Commission.

Yet, things are rarely simple in EU politics, and in their first informal summit after the elections Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Tusk & Co have not played along; the British Prime Minister strongly opposes the veteran federalist Juncker. As predicted before the elections, conflict over the EU's top-executive appointment is intense, and the search for compromise is playing out across three levels: between the 28 heads of state and government (who need a qualified majority to nominate but will try to find consensus); between the European Council and the European Parliament (the latter cannot force the former to nominate its preferred candidate; the former cannot force the latter to accept its choice); and inside the "Europarties" (would the European People's Party back the nomination of a centre-right candidate other than Juncker on ideological grounds, or would it block, so as to bolster the Parliament's institutional clout?).

These questions could stretch the EU's "compromise machine" to its limits, and lead to a prolonged constitutional and political crisis. If the nominated candidate for the Commission Presidency "does not obtain the required majority", the Lisbon Treaty's Art. 17.7 merely states that "the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure". In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to a back and forth between Europe's governments and parliamentarians, leaving the EU without a strong Commission at a time where decisive leadership is needed to solve pressing problems of policy and legitimacy, and making it impossible for the EU's electorate to see the link between their vote for a "Europarty" and executive appointment. The use of qualified majority among nominating governments, by contrast, may alleviate the stand-off between the European Council and Parliament, but push (some) national governments into a domestic crisis: Cameron has already brought the UK's highly charged domestic politics to the negotiation table, arguing that Juncker's nomination would increase the chances of a "no" vote in the planned UK membership referendum, or even require the Prime Minister to bring the referendum forward.

Finally, once the European Commission is in place-in all likelihood, led by a centre-right President-we should expect to see more "grand coalitions" between the centre-right and the centre-left in the EP's day-to-day decision-making. The effects may be positive, with mainstream political parties working together to constructively solve the EU's pressing problems and to better communicate with the EU's citizens. Yet, a reliance on "grand coalitions" in the Eighth European Parliament may make it more difficult for voters to see clear policy-alternatives in the next election-should their vote then count directly for the nomination of the 2019 Commission President.


  • Dr Christine Reh is Senior Lecturer in European Politics and Programme Director of the MSc in European Public Policy at University College London.
  • The article was first published by the UK HE International Unit on 18 June.