By R. Daniel Kelemen
Last week the European People’s Party convened in Helsinki to select its lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat) for the position of Commission President. EPP delegates faced a stark choice between two different visions of their party’s future. Alex Stubb, former Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Finland, positioned himself as the candidate of EU values. The media-savvy, Ironman Stubb put the defense of democracy and rule of law at the center of his agenda, making it clear that he saw no room in the EPP for populists and authoritarians like Viktor Orbán. By contrast, Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament, welcomed the support of Orbán and his Fidesz party and indicated he would be open to striking bargains with anti-immigrant populists like Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
The EPP did not choose wisely. When the votes were counted, Weber had won an overwhelming victory. The EPP rejected the candidate of European democratic values in favor of the long-time autocrat appeaser– or as EU law scholar Laurent Pech has labeled Weber –the Autokratenkandidat. With Weber’s selection, the EPP’s Faustian bargain with Europe’s leading autocrat Orbán is sealed.
Anticipating critiques that might come from selling its soul so publicly, the EPP accompanied the elevation of Weber with the publication of an emergency resolution on “Protecting EU Values and Safeguarding Democracy.” Likewise, in his acceptance speech, Weber announced that as Commission President he would support the introduction of “a binding rule of law mechanism.” These declarations were cynical exercises in gaslighting. They were not just empty promises – though they certainly were that; these pledges of action in the future also served to justify inaction today and to distract from the fact that the EPP has played a crucial role in the emergence of autocratic governments within the EU.
While the EPP was elevating Weber in Helsinki, his pet autocrat Orbán put on a display of impunity back in Budapest. Orbán’s government announced plans for a new system of administrative courts that would complete his political takeover of the independent judiciary, state prosecutors brought criminal charges against a prominent investigative journalist, his government moved closer to pushing the Central European University out of the country, and his party proposed a law that would ban protest marches at sites of state-sponsored national celebrations. In short, Orbán took the EPP’s endorsement of Weber as a green light to unveil the next stage of his hardening his electoral authoritarian regime.
The EPP’s tolerance of Orbán’s autocratic ways also has had disastrous effects well beyond Hungary. It has signaled to other aspiring autocrats across the EU – both those within the EPP such as the leaders of GERB in Bulgaria and those outside it such as the leaders of PiS in Poland – that they too may be able to build electoral authoritarian regimes within the EU. Orbán may be the original pet autocrat – a local authoritarian protected by his Europarty in exchange for the votes and influence he delivers – but today he is by no means the only one.
The EPP may eventually pay a steep price for selling his soul in its bargain with Orbán. As the largest party group in the European Parliament, the EPP prizes the Spitzenkandidat process, because that process demands that the candidate of the party that wins the most votes in the parliamentary elections becomes Commission President. But by nominating the morally compromised Weber as its candidate, the EPP may end up destroying the very process it treasures.
To understand why, one must realize that many leaders in the European Council – in particular those affiliated with the liberal ALDE party group, and French President Emmanuel Macron who has joined forces with them for the 2019 European Parliament election – are keen to do away with the Spitzenkandidat system. They see the system as rigged in favor of the EPP, giving them no chance to capture the Commission Presidency. From their perspective it would be preferable to shift the locus of selection away from the Parliament – where the EPP is likely to be by far the biggest bloc after the election – and into the Council - where ALDE and the EPP are on equal footing as blocs.
The Spitzenkandidat system is hardly set in stone. Indeed, it is not even set in the EU Treaties – which instead call for the Parliament to vote on a nominee presented by the Council. The system was the product of an audacious move by the Parliament in 2014, when the Europarties put forward candidates in advance of the election and warned the Council that the only nominee it would approve would be the candidate of the winning party. Their gambit succeeded and the EPP’s candidate Jean Claude Juncker was installed in the Berlaymont.
Had the EPP selected the popular Stubb as their candidate last week, they might well have succeeded again as he would have garnered support from moderate, pro-Europeans across parties. But in going with the Autokratenkandidat Weber, they have given the Liberals and Macron– who coincidentally has ambitions to reshape the EU-level party system – the perfect justification to reject the Spitzenkandidat process and to instead to negotiate within the Council to come up with an alternative nominee.
It is impossible to know yet how the process will play out. The Socialists have put forward Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans – a staunch defender of the rule of law and other EU values – as their Spitzenkandidat, while the Liberals are refusing to participate in the process altogether. Though the EPP is very likely to remain the largest party in the European Parliament after the May 2019 elections, it is far from certain – indeed I would say quite unlikely – that Manfred Weber will actually become Commission President. For advocates of the Spitzenkandidat process, that would be unfortunate. But for those who more generally advocate the development of democratic partisan competition at the EU level Weber’s failure could be hugely beneficial in a different way.
Until now EU party politics has been stuck in a kind of autocracy trap – what I have termed an authoritarian equilibrium . In the EU’s half-baked system of party competition, Europarties like the EPP can benefit from tolerating national autocrats like Orbán whose parties deliver seats to them in the European Parliament and who can act as allies in the Council. However, because voter awareness of Europarties and their party brands is so weak, leaders of other national parties in these party groups pay essentially no political price for their association with even the most unsavory autocrats. Consider for instance that Merkel’s indirect support – through the EPP – for Orbán was crucial to his rise, but she never suffered at the polls for supporting him as few voters until very recently were even aware of this linkage.
If Weber succeeds in becoming Commission President, it would reinforce this authoritarian equilibrium. His success would show that tolerating autocracy is a winning political strategy, and we might then expect to see the EPP and other mainstream Europarties welcome in more members who violate the EU’s core democratic values. Certainly, a Commission led by Weber would be very unlikely to stand up to democratic backsliding by EU member governments.
By contrast, if the Spitzenkandidat process is derailed in part as a result of the stench associated with Weber’s (and the EPP’s) long-running support for Orbán, this will mark the first time a Europarty pays a real price for coddling a pet autocrat. If that happens, then Weber’s downfall could pave the way for EU democracy’s salvation: perhaps then other democratic EU leaders will begin to think twice before selling their souls to the likes of Orbán, Kaczyński, Salvini, or the next enemy of Europe’s democratic values that tempts those lusting for power.
R. Daniel Kelemen is Professor of Political Science and Law, and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics, Rutgers University, USA
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.