The so called ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process, in which European-level political parties proposed formal candidates for President of the European Commission prior to the European Parliament elections, has been strongly opposed by David Cameron and the British government. This opposition has led to intense disagreement between the UK and other EU states, notably Germany, over whether Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate for the European People’s Party, should be selected as the next Commission President. Simon Hix and Stuart Wilks-Heeg assess differences in the media coverage of the Commission candidates in the UK and Germany. They illustrate that the candidates received substantially less coverage in the UK press, which may offer one reason for why both countries appear to have completely different understandings of how European Parliament elections should work.
You would need to be a close follower of EU-politics to have noticed, but a new word has entered the English language (in Europe at least): Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates). The fact that this is a German word already, and that it has only appeared six times in the UK press so far this year, tells us a lot about how different countries experienced the 2014 European Parliament elections.
Although the European Parliament has been elected in pan-European elections every 5 years since 1979, this was the first time that European-level political parties had proposed rival candidates for the most powerful executive office in the EU – the Commission President – prior to the elections: Jean-Claude Juncker for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), Martin Schulz for the Socialists and Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberals, Ska Keller and José Bové for the Greens, and Alexis Tsipras for the European Left.
Now the elections are over a battle has emerged between Germany and Britain about who should be the next Commission President. For Merkel and most of the political establishment in Germany it must be Juncker, because his EPP party emerged as the largest group in the new European Parliament. As Der Spiegel declared in an editorial on 3 June: “The EU cannot… refuse to give the people of Europe what was assured to them before the election – that they could use their vote to determine the next president of the European Commission”.
For Cameron and most of the British political establishment, in contrast, the Spitzenkandidaten process should be ignored by the European Council, on the grounds that the heads of government must retain their sovereign right to choose the Commission President: “Block Juncker to Save Democracy”, Gideon Rachman exhorted in The Financial Times.
Why such a different reaction? Part of the answer almost certainly lies in how the German and British media portrayed the campaign between the Spitzenkandidaten. Most fundamentally of all, there was enormous variation in the extent to which media coverage in the two countries made reference to any of the Spitzenkandidaten. In turn, these variations in volumes of media reporting had a major influence in the degree to which voters in both countries were aware of the existence of lead candidates.
Chart 1 illustrates the dramatic contrast between German and UK media coverage. It presents a weekly count (beginning 31 March 2014) of the total number of press reports in each country that cited both “Juncker” and “Schulz”, the rival Spitzenkandidaten nominated by the two largest party groupings (derived from the Library Press Display database which provide comprehensive coverage of the print versions of national and regional titles published in both countries).
As the figure shows, the UK press engaged in virtually no discussion of the two leading candidates in the 8 weeks before the election or in the week after the election. In total, there were only 27 press articles that mentioned both Juncker and Schulz; an average of 3 per week. Over the same period, there were 1,905 articles in the German press that contained the names of these two Spitzenkandidaten. The bulk of this coverage occurred from early May onwards, with a sharp peak in coverage evident from the week commencing 5 May. There was also a second peak in German press reporting in the week after the elections (commencing 26 May). We return to the significance of both of these peaks later in this post.
Chart 1: Number of articles in German and UK press citing both “Juncker” and “Schulz”, weekly from 31 March 2014
Note: Derived from Library Press Display searches.
These contrasts in German and UK press coverage are not limited to the two candidates with the highest profile. Our second chart compares the number of articles published in the two countries in which each individual candidate was named. Again, the figures are presented on a weekly basis but each name has been searched for separately, rather than in combination. In addition, the totals for the two Green candidates have been combined.
Chart 2: Number of articles in German and UK press citing each candidate for EU Commission President by name, weekly from 28 April 2014
Note: Derived from Library Press Display searches.
The absolute dominance of Juncker and Schulz in German press reporting is evident here, as is the contrast in the extent to which each candidate was mentioned in the UK press each week. Yet, the differences in the attention paid to the other Spitzenkandidaten is just as stark. From 12-25 May, Alexis Tsipras, Guy Verhofstadt, and Ska Keller/José Bové received, respectively, 3, 5 and 21 times more exposure in the German than the UK press.
Another telling finding is that the peak period of references to any candidate in the UK press occurred in the week after the elections, when Jean-Claude Juncker was mentioned 61 times. This pattern is shown more clearly in our third chart, which documents just the number of UK press reports making mention of each candidate over the same period. Here we have used the Lexis Library database, which has the advantage of including all web-published content. Consequently, the number of name citations for each candidate is slightly higher than in the previous chart.
Chart 3: Number of articles in UK press (national and regional) citing each candidate for EU Commission President by name, weekly from 28 April 2014
Note: Figures derived from Lexis Library searches.
Again, the extremely modest amount of coverage of the contest is striking. But, as noted above, what is especially apparent is the huge leap in post-election mentions of Jean-Claude Juncker. This spike is easily explained, as it reflects David Cameron’s efforts to prevent Juncker from becoming Commission President. Similarly, the volume of references to both Juncker and Schulz in the German press from 26 May-1 June is largely a product of political and journalistic reaction to Cameron’s attempts to overturn the outcome of the Spitzenkandidaten process.
A further important observation should be made about the surge in German press coverage of the rival Spitzenkandidaten in the week commencing 5 May. This was the week during which the third of the seven televised Spitzenkandidaten debates, in this instance in German, was transmitted by public broadcasters in Germany and Austria. While none of the debates secured large audiences, a survey by the German-based pollsters AMR estimated that 18 per cent of Germans had watched at least part of one debate; the fourth highest figure among the 15 countries where polling was carried out. Moreover, these viewing figures and the associated press coverage were clearly instrumental in raising popular awareness of the Spitzenkandidaten in Germany, particularly in comparison to the UK.
As the next chart shows, compiled using the headline national-level figures from the AMR survey, there was a strong correlation between viewing of the television debates and the ability to name at least one of the candidates unaided. In Luxembourg, where 36 per cent said they had watched at least some televised debate, more than half could name one of the candidates. In the UK, in contrast, where 7 per cent claimed to have watched a debate (a figure which seems questionably high), only 1 per cent could name any of the candidates. Clearly, the extent of, and attention to, media coverage is not the only explanation for the variations presented here. Tellingly, the three countries which appear furthest above the regression line (Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany) are also the nationalities of the individual candidates: Juncker is Luxembourgeois, Verhofstadt is Belgian, and both Schulz and Keller are German (the comparably lower proportion of Greeks able to name a candidate is, however, puzzling given the profile of Alexis Tsipras).
Chart 4: Scatterplot of relationship between viewing of televised Spitzenkandidaten debates and public awareness of candidates’ names
Note: Data from AMR survey.
Battles between governments over the interpretation of the Treaty are reasonably common in EU politics. But what is perhaps surprising this time – and more worrying for the future of the EU and Anglo-German relations – is how the media in Germany and the UK have taken completely different views of the process. The different level of media coverage of the campaign for the Commission President is one of the main reasons why German and British voters and the political elites in Berlin and Paris have a completely different understanding of how European Parliament elections work.
The battle over the Spitzenkandidaten process is not going to be easy to solve. The inherent tension in the design of the EU since its birth – between an emerging democratic federal union and an intergovernmental association – has come to a head. How Merkel, Cameron and co. resolve this tension could shape the future of Europe and Britain’s relationship with the rest of the Continent for decades to come.
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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Simon Hix – LSE Government
Simon Hix is Professor of European and Comparative Politics and Head of the LSE’s Department of Government. He is co-editor of the journal European Union Politics. He has held visiting appointments at UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC San Diego, Sciences-Po Paris, and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He regular gives evidence to the committees in the European Parliament and the European affairs committees in the House of Lords and House of Commons. He has written several books on the EU and comparative politics, including “What’s Wrong With the EU and How to Fix It” (Polity, 2008). Simon is also a Fellow of the British Academy.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg – University of Liverpool
Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool. He is recognised as a leading expert on the UK democratic process, particularly with regard to issues associated with the mechanics of the electoral process. Stuart frequently provides UK political commentary and analysis for newspapers and broadcasters regionally, nationally and internationally. He also contributes to a range of leading political blogs, and tweets on UK politics @stuartwilksheeg
The reason we have a different opinion is the party leaders either didn’t visit the UK the 3rd most populous EU country & one of its biggest bank-rollers & worse not all their parties even fielded candidates. Why didn’t Junker & Shulz join Clegg & debate EU policy against Farage? The answer is they treated British voters with the same disdain that Assad treated the voices he didn’t want to hear in Syria just recently. If there is no message from these people you cannot expect our media to deliver it.
These complaints are almost entirely the fault of British politicians. The ECR didn’t field a candidate because David Cameron/Daniel Hannan decided they didn’t want to put one forward. UKIP’s group made the same decision. That was their call – it had nothing to do with Juncker, Schulz or anyone associated with the EU’s institutions. Labour also told Schulz not to campaign in Britain as they thought it might damage them at the European elections, so having a debate in the UK would have been impossible.
If we don’t think the nomination of Commission candidates is a good idea then fair enough, but blaming Juncker or the EU for this is way off the mark – it’s Cameron, Hannan, Farage and Miliband you should be criticising if that’s what you believe.
Can someone please explain me how Hannan has become so influential? Cameron’s whole European policy seems to pivot around him, which is quite astounding, considering that Hannan is far to the right of the Tory mainstream, and his name reviled not just in Strasbourg, Brussels and Berlin, but also in Washington DC. I doubt that the Democrats are going to forgive him his role in the media onslaught against “Obamacare” anytime soon.
Does the nature and extent of media coverage not primarily reflect and take its cue from the attitude of the government in any country? Had the UK government said it would abide by or even take note of the choice yielded by the Spitzenkandidaten process (a process that does little to enhance democracy and a sense of voter engagement and connection) then there might have been some purpose in the media addressing the issue and voters engaging with it..
Meanwhile however, Dr Merkel reportedly is now unwilling to permit Spitzenkandidat Shulz to be nominated to the Commission by Germany: so much for her government taking note, even allowing for the distinction in roles.
No they put candidates forward for other parties, there was nothing to stop & indeed the major parties should put their own candidates forward if none of the traditional parties in the UK was prepared to fly their flag for them in an election & maybe the reason no one knows what a Spitzenkandidaten is possibly because even google spell checker hasn’t a clue what it means. You have to accept if a party wants to claim victory it has to field candidates in all constituencies in all member states, they get plenty of funding from our tax payers to cover their expenses which are funnelled to them through the EU. Junker is as Legitimate as Assad is is Syria on that basis but what Junker cant get through his head is that the commission merely has to take notice of the EU elections when choosing the next president. No where does it say we must be bound by the result of the MEP’s especially so as they didnt field candidates.
If Putin ignored 15% or his electorate or Mugabe ignored white voters would their election to office be legitimate? No & neither is Junker legitimate he is a man that thinks the answer to the problem is to do more of what caused the problem in the first place & as we know that is the definition of insanity.
what a load of rubbish
having the lead candidate of a party emerge as the chief of the executive body of any administration is a common occurrence in UK politics
nobody elected Cameron as Prime Minister. Instead he was “nominated” by the Queen (non-elected aristocrat) precisely because his party (the Tories) emerged with the more votes.
Cameron has only be elected as a MP fpr Whitney.
in addition, in EVERY democracy you NEVER try to reach to all constituencies. You only target your messages to your core supporters and the undecided.
Do the Tories try to convince the Labour supporters to vote for them ? no. they go for the center and/or the right-wing.
Does it mean they “ignore” them ? no again … it’s just the normal democratic game of courting votes where they can be won (and making sure to keep them come Election Day)
the sheer hypocrisy and ignorance of UKippers is pathetic.
You don’t have a clue sunshine, He was proposed by the party that got the largest group of MP’s. He did not by doing so earn the right to become president of the commission. Quite clearly you simply have not read the treaties which clearly state that the governments of the member states chose the head of the commission not the power grabbing parliament, they are simply asked to take into consideration the mood of the result of the voters which has quite clearly made a huge lurch for change whilst Junker has a recipe of doing more of the same of what caused the problems in Europe. I have never voted UKIP my MP Ken Clarke has always received my vote. now run along & check what the treaties actually say before you reply. Merkel has caused this problem, not Cameron, she doesn’t even want Junker, she has just dug herself a hole.
“The office of Prime Minister is not established by any constitution or law but exists only by long-established convention, which stipulates that the monarch must appoint as prime minister the person most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons; this individual is typically the leader of the political party or coalition of parties that holds the largest number of seats in that chamber. The position of Prime Minister was not created; it evolved slowly and erratically over three hundred years due to numerous acts of Parliament, political developments, and accidents of history.”
no treaties oblige the british queen to choose the head of the largest party as prime minister after election day, nor the “head” for that matter.
yet, if the monarch didn’t do the bidding of the parliamentarians, she would be cast-away and replaced.
similarly, nothing in the Lisbon Treaty prevents the heads of states of EU governments from choosing.the next Commission’s president from the largest party in the EU parliament, and that’s what the EPP has chosen Jean-Claudse Juncker for.
now, it’s up to the heads of state to abide democratically … or as Cameron and Viktor Orban would prefer to do it, stitch up a lame candidate behind closed-door and against the wishes of the majority of voters.
the EU is a multinational organisation in constant evolving, and as such having a more open and democratic process can only be a positive change.
incidentally, what you call “MEPs for change” (whatothers would describe as racists, xenophobes, populists and illiberals) received less than 30% of the popular vote.
but those that matters most are the 60%+ who are mainstream parties (EPP, Greens, Liberals, Socialists).
but again, the UK’s experience doesn’t give much credits to representing the wishes of the majority : the Tories received only 36% of the vote (25% when the turnout is taken into consideration) and yet expect to have full powers to reign
& this has what exactly to do with Junker & the Chamber of the EU parliament trying to circumvent the treaties with a power grab?
Clearly you have no idea of the difference between a nation state — where internal organic changes can take place, provided the electorate accepts them — and a treaty organisation consisting of independent, sovereign states which, by definition, can only make changes via treaty (otherwise, it’s an assault on national sovereignty).
If you had even a basic understanding of international law, you’d recognize that Joe Thorpe is quite correct — the European Parliament is attempting to circumvent the treaties and usurp a prerogative belonging to the member states’ heads of governments.
It is not only the media. Schulz (PSE) and Juncker (EPP) did not campaign in the UK. British conservatives left the EPP group, Apparently Labour was also not quite supportive of Spitzenkandidat Schulz.
Nice to have someone who plays the devils´ advocate. But he should try to make the sons and daughters of David Hume look more reasonable instead of knowledgeable only. And what about the role of the media. In democratic countries the media go after journalistic values or money. In Germany still is a harsh competition around media and for value content in the known papers. Why is there no interest in informative and fact orientated and therefore all-encompassing journalism and coverage in the UK? Well, because the mainstream media sees no value in the EU because there is no demand for information about EU topics in the UK people. And why is that? Because big money does not like the EU and therefore lobbies the parties to counter EU policies. Best in my opinion: The UK should leave the EU – feel the harm it does to itself and be happy with its freedom (of the financial market). It will be missed gravely as a partner – but so it IS already. It became more and more a trouble-monger, extortionist and profiteer of the union.
I disagree about big business – in fact big business in the UK is strongly supportive of the EU and lobbies to stay in. That’s one of the reasons all of the mainstream parties have supported staying in for decades.
The media is a completely different issue because there the real motivation is what sells newspapers. There is no positive story to sell about the EU, but as a negative story it’s a perfect storm of four “angles” the media has always used to sell papers: “foreigners telling us what to do”, anti-nanny state articles of the form “you won’t believe what the politicians are trying to ban now”, stories related to the UK doing badly in international affairs (there is a long history of that angle being played up going all the way back to the start of the 19th century), and, of course, playing up fears about immigration.
With the EU you not only have a target where you can hit all four of those issues at once, you also have a situation where the vast majority of the public have very little understanding of what the EU actually is or does. For that reason the papers can more or less say whatever they like – hence the repeated pattern of exaggerated/invented stories about the EU banning something (pints of beer, reusing jam jars, making it illegal to sell eggs by the dozen – yes, that really appeared in a national newspaper).
So the reason there are no positive stories about the EU isn’t that big business wants to leave, it’s that there’s no angle to use in selling it to the public. We’re left with a very odd situation in which most politicians/big businesses want to stay in, but there’s a media driven dialogue (capitalised on by Farage) around an odd caricature of the EU which doesn’t actually exist – an EU where an unelected Commission dictates laws against powerless governments, where the economy is crippled by paying money into the EU budget, where almost all our laws have been given over to Brussels, and where power hungry Eurocrats are waging a cultural war against everything overtly British.
If you want to understand UKIP then look no further than that – the majority of their supporters genuinely believe that’s how the EU works (and it’s therefore no wonder that they want to leave). Until politicians stop pandering to that nonsense and start explaining to the public how the EU actually works we’ll leave the door open for the media to continue using it as a cheap trick to sell papers.
Thanks a lot for this insightful comment! Yes, I see it in various countries, that the EU is often a well used kind of scapegoat for politicians. Through the factual distance and the lack of explanation one knows little. Informing oneself seems not worth the efforts considering the complexity and the comparatively little influence a single citizen has. Some politicians use the EU to enhance their standing or diminishing a self-made failure accusing the EU of wrongdoing, or stating they “had to” act, while sometimes being the initiator on EU level.
Considering big money, is it not so that the gigantic British financial sector antagonizes the EU in terms of fears for regulation and diminishing gains through a tax on financial transactions (to come)?
And what about intellectuals, moral “admonishers” with credibility, somebody to criticize bad or wrong coverage in the media. Somebody stating the Importance of the political process. Discussing about being in the EU or not, about the future leader or direction of the EU for GB and the EU weighs at that moment in time double, imo, compared to the Ukraine being annexed by Russia or not, which of course is of great importance for international relations and the future in whole.