The “Spitzenkandidaten” in the media: did they make a difference this time?
This is a post on Spitzenkandidaten by Dr Katjana Gattermann. The text was originally published in the edited volume Euroflections. Leading academics on the European elections 2019, a free downloadable report with results, analyses and reflections on the election to the European Parliament 2019. More than 70 researchers from all over Europe participate in the project led by the editors Niklas Bolin, Kajsa Falasca, Marie Grusell and Lars Nord. Download the report and read more about the project here.
One distinct feature of the 2019 European Parliament elections were the campaigns of the pan-European lead candidates of several European party groups. These so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” were first introduced in the previous elections of 2014. Back then, it was hoped that – by personalizing the campaigns – European citizens would become more aware of the elections and ultimately more mobilized to take part in the polls. In 2014, there was no clear evidence that the Spitzenkandidaten indeed fulfilled this function. In fact, only few citizens could recognize any of the Spitzenkandidaten during the campaigns. Nonetheless, one of the past Spitzenkandidaten, namely Jean-Claude Juncker, was later nominated by the European Council and ultimately elected as Commission President by the Parliament.
That is why the European Parliament urged European party groups to again nominate pan-European Spitzenkandidaten for the 2019 elections. This time, there were seven Spitzenkandidaten: the European People’s Party nominated the German Manfred Weber, the Social Democrats Dutchman Frans Timmermans, the Conservatives the Czech Jan Zahradil, and the Greens and the Left each chose a duo of a male and a female candidate. The Liberals put forward a team of candidates, comprising among others Guy Verhofstadt from Belgium and Margrethe Vestager from Denmark.
The importance of media visibility
In order for European citizens to take note of the Spitzenkandidaten, there has to be sufficient media visibility. So, how visible were the candidates? Did the media pay more attention to them than in 2014? Seeing that the outcome of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure was still unknown during the 2014 election campaigns, but eventually led to the selection of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President, journalists may have taken the procedure more seriously in 2019 and hence may have more frequently reported about the Spitzenkandidaten.
Back in 2014, I conducted a content analysis of each two French, Dutch, German, Irish and Italian newspapers over a period of ten weeks prior to Election Day. I repeated this content analysis for the same newspapers and time-span for the 2019 elections. On the whole, news coverage of the Spitzenkandidaten was not significantly more comprehensive in 2019 compared to 2014. German newspapers paid most attention to all Spitzenkandidaten in 2019, followed by the Dutch press, which is not surprising because the candidates of the two biggest party groups are German and Dutch, respectively. French newspapers reported most extensively about the Spitzenkandidaten in 2014.
This year however, they devoted significantly less attention to the Spitzenkandidaten than before. In 2014, the German Spitzenkandidat Martin Schulz (Social Democrats) received most attention in all newspapers under study, while in 2019, the German Manfred Weber was most reported only in Germany, Italy and France. Margrethe Vestager was the most visible candidate in the Irish press; Frans Timmermans unsurprisingly received most attention at home. In short, the visibility of the Spitzenkandidaten varied across country and there was no significant increase in attention paid to them by European newspapers between 2014 and 2019.
Moreover, three pan-European television debates between the Spitzenkandidaten were held in both 2014 and 2019. Two of them were livestreamed on the internet; and only the debate organised by the European Broadcast Union (EBU) was also broadcasted via national television stations. According to the EBU, the 2019 debate was broadcasted live in 19 EU countries, but not in nine other EU countries (Austria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia). However, one problem with pan-European debates is language: often, candidate statements have to be translated by an interpreter which hinders the audience to get a vivid impression of the candidates. Likewise, candidates may come across differently – for example, as less confident or less eloquent – if they debate in a language that is not their mother tongue. Still, these debates provide an important forum for citizens to learn about different candidates and their positions – if not directly, then at least through further media coverage about these debates (provided the media report about them, of course).
Does the visbility of Spitzenkandidaten improve turnout?
It is still too early to say whether the Spitzenkandidaten were able to mobilize European citizens this time round; we need to systematically analyse data for that. Indeed, turnout figures have gone up in many countries compared to the previous European elections. But there could be several reasons for this which are not necessarily linked to the Spitzenkandidaten. Then again, provisional election results of the Dutch Labour party of Frans Timmermans and the Bavarian Christian Democrats, for which Manfred Weber was standing, indicate that both parties have gained more seats in the European Parliament compared to last time. Even if these outcomes could be attributed to the Spitzenkandidaten, this impact remains limited to the country or region in which they had actually been listed on the ballot. Moreover, national parties tend not to campaign extensively with candidates from other countries, for example, on election campaign posters.
Overall, it is unlikely that the Spitzenkandidaten were the driving force behind voter turnout and votes for specific party groups across Europe. Given that media attention differed across country and there was not significantly more news coverage about the Spitzenkandidaten compared to 2014, it remains to be seen whether European citizens have actually become more aware of the candidates during the 2019 election campaigns.