European elections 2019: Who will be the Social Democrats’ choice to become the next Spitzenkandidat?

, by Louise Olander

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European elections 2019: Who will be the Social Democrats' choice to become the next Spitzenkandidat?
Maroš Šefčovič and Frans Timmermans in 2017. Photo: Party of European Socialists // Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The race is on for the Party of European Socialists’ (PES) candidacy for European Commission President after the European Parliament elections in May 2019. Who will manage to unite the European centre-left against pressure from the EPP? And where are all the women?

This week saw the race heating up, as Frans Timmermans, currently the Dutch First Vice-President of the Juncker Commission, announced his bid to become the PES candidate on 10 October. He thereby goes head to head with colleague Maroš Šefčovič, Slovak Commissioner and Vice-President for the Energy Union, who launched his campaign in September.

Both contenders have, in line with PES rules, now amassed the support of at least 8 national parties other than their own to stand as candidates. This threshold has proved a stumbling block for other potential candidates – France’s Commissioner Pierre Moscovici had to back out of the race earlier this month due to a lack of support. Former Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern has also announced that he will not be running after all, despite earlier reports to the contrary.

Both Timmermans and Šefčovič are Brussels insiders, but it has been speculated that the nationally precarious position of Timmermans’s Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), which is currently in opposition, may weaken his campaign. Šefčovič, who has been backed by Central European social democratic parties, has been dubbed by some commentators as a safer choice around whom Member States in the European Council would find it easier to unite. On the other hand, Timmermans reportedly enjoys the support of big national parties from Spain, Italy, the Nordic countries, and importantly, Germany.

No female social democrats have yet announced their bids, with High Representative Federica Mogherini declining to participate and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt conspicuous by her absence. This is troubling for PES, which has argued for the importance of gender equality in the Spitzenkandidaten race.

The deadline for socialist candidates to announce their intention to run is 18 October. The final decision will be taken by a vote among the PES member parties and ratified at the PES congress in December.

Whoever wins the bid to become the PES candidate will face tough competition from the right. According to the latest polls, the European People’s Party (EPP) is set to gain 178 seats in the European Parliament compared to the socialists’ 137. The EPP frontrunners are currently the German Manfred Weber and the Finn Alexander Stubb.

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