French president Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron © EPA

First on the Pnyx hilltop in Athens, then at the Sorbonne university in Paris, Emmanuel Macron was adamant last year: Europe needs more democracy. But EU parliamentarians may find that the French president’s repeated clarion calls stop short of letting them choose the bloc’s most powerful executive.

French aides and EU diplomats say Mr Macron is unwilling to give the EU parliament a free hand in deciding who should replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president in 2019. The reticence suggests a possible departure from the process of picking so-called lead candidates — Spitzenkandidaten— that led to Mr Juncker’s nomination in 2014.

Under the Spitzenkandidaten process, the leader of the winning political force in elections to the EU parliament becomes the commission chief. MEPs had expected that Mr Macron, given his comments in favour of pan-European democracy, would support use of the process for the next EU polls.

But this assumption has been thrown into question ahead of an informal meeting of EU leaders this month, when top EU posts including the commission job will be discussed. Mr Macron, whose iconoclastic rise to the French presidency was based on doing battle with established parties, is reluctant to back a process that could cement their roles if his plan to storm the European Parliament with his own En Marche movement fails.

“We accepted restricting the legal capacity of the European Council [to pick a commission president] once,” a French diplomat said. “But we don’t feel tied by it.”

Four years ago, EU leaders were extremely reluctant to make a direct link between European Parliament elections and the commission job, fearing they would lose control of selection and narrow the pool of candidates. MEPs outflanked them and hailed Mr Juncker’s appointment as a victory for democracy over opaque manoeuvrings among heads of state.

When the former Luxembourg premier was appointed over the objections of Britain and Hungary, EU leaders pledged not to be caught out again by parliament. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is touring European capitals in preparation for the leaders’ meeting on February 23.

Senior EU diplomats say the Paris leg next week will be crucial. “We fear the Spitzenkandidat train has left the station, it probably can’t be stopped,” one diplomat said. “The only one who could do it is Macron.”

The debate may cause an institutional clash. Many leaders on the European Council, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, are still reticent about the Spitzenkandidat system. But the parliament wants to consolidate its gains and is preparing a motion declaring that it will only approve a commission president who was a top party candidate in the elections.

MEPs say Mr Macron’s doubts may stem from him not being part of a pan-European political group.

“If Emmanuel Macron wants to practise European democracy and solidarity, he has to support the Spitzenkandidat concept,” Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right EPP group, said.

Critics of the Spitzenkandidat process, which is not written in the treaties, argue that it is distant from voters who tend to be sceptical of EU elections — in Slovakia, for example, turnout last time was 13 per cent. They also say it is based on party groups that are ideologically incoherent and often in flux.

The system also naturally favours candidates from big member states with lots of voters and shifts the balance of power within the union, giving parliament disproportionate power and making the commission inherently a more “political” body.

French aides argue that while a Spitzenkandidat rule works well in a two-party system with established political groups capable of winning an absolute majority, it is a source of uncertainty in a more fragmented parliament beset by Eurosceptic forces.

The French leader has so far declined to align himself with any of the established EU political groupings, contrary to the received wisdom that they are crucial for exerting influence in Brussels. A spokeswoman for the Elysee declined to comment.

Mr Macron wants to form a new group of MEPs to back his integrationist vision for the EU. He is pushing for pan-EU lists of candidates and, to try to boost traditionally low turnout in EU elections, he has convinced about 15 other member states to organise “public consultations” over the future of Europe.

His reluctance to back Spitzenkandidaten suggests that the French president is less confident of carrying through an EU-wide political revolution — and sees the old way of picking the commission chief as the safer bet to usher Europe down his preferred integrationist path.

“They are hedging their bets because they are not certain their party will emerge as the leader in the polls,” a person familiar with the Elysee thinking said. “But it may end up being self-defeating. Not backing the Spitzenkandidaten means you’re not going to inject all your energy to win.”

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