Single title

Good or only good intentions?

by Olaf Wientzek

Commentary on current proposals for strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU

Policymakers and the public are currently discussing three proposals in particular for strengtheningthe democratic legitimacy of the EU.President Emmanuel Macron, to carry out “citizens’ consultations” on the future of the EU as ofApril 2018.

a) Continuation of the “Spitzenkandidaten” (top-candidate)

procedure which was first applied during the 2014 European election: Five of the European party

families ran with their own candidates for the office of Commission President. b) Using the seats in

the European Parliament (EP) that will become vacant after Brexit to create a Europe-wide constituency

with cross-border (“transnational”) electoral lists. c) The proposal propounded by the French

President Emmanuel Macron, to carry out “citizens’ consultations” on the future of the EU as of

April 2018.

Hypothesis 1: Retaining the “Spitzenkandidaten” – enhancing the process

1. The “Spitzenkandidaten” ensure greater transparency and legitimacy: At the national

and regional level, it is always clear which candidate the electorate indirectly votes for Chancellor

or for Prime Minister. Similarly, voters should also know which Commission President

they indirectly vote for during European elections. What’s more, it will strengthen the political

link between the European Parliament and the Commission – and thus also the legitimacy of

the latter. Accordingly, only a top candidate from a European political family should be considered

for the position of Commission President in the future; this would adequately take into

consideration the result of the European election.

2. Enhancing the process: A study carried out following the 2014 elections indicates that

active campaigning and a higher profile of the “Spitz enkandidat” had a positive impact on

the (election) turnout in the respective EU countries.For this reason, national member parties

ought to take measures to improve the visibility of the candidate from the European

party family. In the future, top candidates should also make public appearances in all countries

in which their party family is represented. Therefore, the top candidates ought to be

determined at an early stage (late 2018). The programme of the respective party family

should be suitable for the candidate.

3. Increasing the visibility of the European party families: In 2014, there was still very

little awareness of the European party families such as the European People’s Party (EPP),

the European Socialists (PES), the Liberals (ALDE), the European Green Party (EGP) and

their respective parliamentary groups within the EP; this is partly because they were

scarcely mentioned by their member parties during the last election campaign. In 2019,

the respective European party family should also be listed on the ballot papers, election

posters and other electoral material in addition to the national party.

Hypothesis 2: Transnational lists are a well-intentioned, yet unconvincing idea

4. Transnational lists would be too far removed from the people.A European Member of

Parliament (MEP) already represents between 600,000-900,000 people in the large EU countries.

Certain member states and parties are using regional rather than nation-wide electoral lists, so

as to ensure close links with the local citizens. Yet this link would be absent from Europe-wide

lists: Could candidates on these lists plausibly claim to be a point of contact for citizens residing

both in Tallinn and Seville alike? Such lists stand for centralism as opposed to the ideal of a federal

Europe: Even federal states like the USA do not have nation-wide electoral lists.

5. Risk of large states playing a domineering role: There would be a strong temptation to

place candidates from the large member states at the top of the list, since they mobilise more

votes than candidates from the smaller countries.

6. Limiting the efficiency of the European Parliament: Transnational lists could benefit populists

who are more well-known across Europe than politicians with a (special) area of expertise

due to populists’ high-profile attacks, but who are not in fact interested in the work performed

by the EP. Transnational lists could open the gateway for short-term political movements which

have failed to gain a foothold in the member states, and which often quickly lose their importance.

This could result in further fragmentation of the EP beyond the existing 7-8 parliamentary groups,

thereby restricting its ability to function efficiently.

7. Exploiting obvious alternatives: There is a range of alternative measures that would be

better suited to strengthening transparency, democratic legitimacy and the efficiency of the

EP: a) Improving the top candidate process, b) Raising awareness of the European party

families, c) Agreement about a reform of the European electoral legislation with the introduction

of a binding minimum threshold for large EU countries.

Hypothesis 3: Citizens’ consultations – integrating civil society, managing expectations

8. Integrating organized civil society: The proposal to increase public participation in the

European debate is a welcome development (this also applies to the European Commission’s

White Paper process and existing surveys conducted by European parties). To ensure that consultations

reach the citizen, they ought to be carried out at local level in dialogue with organised

civil society (clubs, associations, churches, foundations) and with actors who have proven

themselves in the area of political education.

9. Complementary instrument__ Complementary instrument__omplementary instrument__plementary instrument__ementary instrument__entary instrument__tary instrument__ry instrument__ instrument__nstrument__trument__ument__ent__t___, not a panacea: Due to their short-term nature, it will be difficult

to exploit the potential of consultations as well as reaching apolitical and Euro-sceptic citizens, for

example. Accordingly, it is important to manage expectations so that dashed hopes do not lead to

frustration. Citizens’ consultations cannot replace representative democracy: For instance, they

would not be able to counterbalance potential damage to the image of the European idea caused

by abolishing the “Spitzenkandidaten” procedure.

Contact Person

Dr. Olaf Wientzek

Olaf Wientzek bild

Director of the Multilateral Dialogue Geneva +41 22 748 70 70
Political opinion
February 16, 2018
Demokratie ist kein Zuschauersport!
Country Reports
September 29, 2017
Macrons Vision für Europa
Event Reports
November 8, 2017
Eliten, Engagement, Europa, Entgrenzung und Entschleunigung
Event Reports
March 22, 2017
Europa der zwei Geschwindigkeiten oder „weniger mit mehr Wumms“

To commit you must sign in.

Ordering Information


Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.


Berlin Deutschland