by Beppe Galea

The European People’s Party family will convene in Helsinki for its Congress where the highly anticipated EPP spitzenkandidaten process will take place. The Congress, which is the highest decision-making body of the Party, is composed of delegates from EPP member and associated member parties, groups and member associationsthe category under which the European Democrat Students fall.

For the past decade, the EPP Congress met every year and a half, primarily to decide on the main policy documents and electoral programmes and to provide a networking platform for the EPP heads of government and party leaders. Every three years, the Congress elects its leadership and presidency, and since 2013, the Congress had the remit of nominating the EPP candidate for the role of President of the European Commission. This process is famously known as the Spitzenkandidaten process whereby the party with the largest number of votes garnered in the European Parliament election has to nominate a person to lead the European Commission. 

History 

Right before the European elections of 2014, the EPP and other European parties proposed their favourite candidate to lead their campaign in order to get indirectly elected as the President of the European Commission. The current European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, emerged as the winner during the EPP Congress held in Dublin, when he was contested by the current European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom exiting the European Union, Michel Barnier. Juncker got almost two-thirds (61%) of the votes while Barnier received the remaining 39% of the votes. 

At the time, the EPP was the last European political party to choose a candidate, and it was the only one to hold a contested election at its party congress. Martin Schulz, a German and at the time he was an influential Member of the European Parliament, was elected by 91% of delegates at the centre-left Party of European Socialists congress in Rome. While Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt stood unopposed at the liberal ALDE party’s congress in Brussels when the European commissioner for the budget, Olli Rehn from Finland, dropped out of the contest following a backroom deal with Verhofstadt. 

The Juncker Commission 

President Juncker has for more than one occasion reassured the public that he would not stand for re-election after his term ends with the European elections coming up in May 2019. No one can describe the past four years as plain sailing for the EU. Many regard them as turbulent, primarily because of the economic instability in the first few months in office, second because of the Greek bailout in 2015, the Brexit issue in 2016 after the UK referendum and the issue of security and migration. The migration issue saw the European Union unable to cater for the large numbers of people passing through the different migration flows to access the EU borders. Four years down the line, these serious concerns for the EU are somewhat diluted and to a certain extent solved. The EU member states have collectively registered successive economic growths, Greece emerged from the eurozone bailout programme and successfully completed a three-year emergency loan programme to tackle its debt crisis, the EU-27 emerged as a united block after the UK referendum on Brexit while several member states are tackling migration. 

Social Media and Euroscepticism 

The issues surrounding the social media platforms is of high importance to the success of the European elections, and it will most probably make it a stand-alone topic in next November’s EPP Congress. The EPP and other European parties are embarking on an aggressive online campaign, bringing together different people from different backgrounds, to gear up for the European Parliament elections. 

In a study compiled by a group of European researchers, they have stated that the Spitzenkandidaten process has allowed party groups “to run more focused and personalised electoral campaigns that would transcend national borders”. They describe social media as a fertile ground for parties to make their voices heard and to improve their message according to the needs and wants of the citizens. In fact, they concluded that political communication through social media reflects a discourse about European issues and politicising the debate over the future and shape of EU institutions and policies. This is in contrast to providing an extension of political competition over traditionally national issues. Similarly, several researchers had found that candidates with an anti-EU agenda used their Twitter account “to politicise further the EU dimension by promoting anti-EU rhetoric as they have in other communication channels”.  

As the political parties prepare their strategies to target EU citizens through different mediums, the social media giants are being encouraged to prepare a strategy to eliminate trolls and fake news, from their platforms. With this in mind, the European Parliament called in Facebook’s chief Mark Zuckerberg to explain their strategies in combating electoral manipulation. Unfortunately, it was reported that he did not offer many answers, but a month later, the members met with senior officials from Facebook and were reportedly assured that Facebook’s tools were more sophisticated than the 2016 US elections meaning that the platform is more geared to combat fake news.  

Conclusion 

This whole package of policies will certainly feature in next November’s EPP Congress in Helsinki. Subsequently, migration, social media and Euroscepticism will also dominate the campaign for the European elections in the first half of next year. The EPP Congress will help generate public interest in an array of policies and once again be at the forefront of European policy-making.

20 September 2018
73
This text was published in Bullseye issue 73