Europe as a springboard for the presidency? The experience of presidents and presidential candidates in EU institutions

On 25 May 2014, former EU Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė won the election for her second term as president of Lithuania. The fact that candidates with experience in EU institutions run for president is not uncommon and a position in the EU institutions should bring a number of advantages for candidates. As a number of former MEPs and Commissioners have been elected president, this raises the question to what extent the European institutions present a ‘springboard’ for the presidency. To answer this question, this post looks at the ‘EU experience’ of presidential candidates and presidents in the EU member states. While (former) MEPs and Commissioners have run for president in 20 out of 27 countries, only few are able to gather a significant number of votes. Also, despite the fact that some European presidents once held a European office, this was rarely the reason for their electoral success. Nevertheless, EU experience does also not hinder success in presidential elections. Rather, candidates with EU experience are often those who would have little chances of success in any case.

Lithuanian President and former EU Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė in the European Parliament| photo via

A political position in the European institutions should have a number of advantages for prospective presidential candidates in both parliamentary and semi-presidential systems. The ‘European experience’ helps candidates to stress their ability to represent their country abroad. They are also less likely to be drawn into fights within their national parties and can thus stay relatively uncontroversial and develop a suprapartisan image that is untainted by national scandals. As they are rarely at the centre of media attention, European candidates might thus be able to maintain a certain ‘outsider’ bonus even if they are part of their party’s leadership.

When Dalia Grybauskaitė was first elected president of Lithuania in 2009, her work as Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget, particularly her efforts to reduce spending on various agricultural programmes brought her much praise (she was even named ‘Commissioner of the Year 2005’). By openly criticising the Lithuanian government’s failure to respond to the financial crisis she made sure that she became a household name on the political scene of her home country and paved the way for her first-round victory (winning 68%) in the 2009 presidential elections. Her European experience mattered for her initial election. Nevertheless, this story of Europe as a ‘springboard’ for the presidency appears to be rather unique and not the norm in the EU member states.

Already in 2014, Grybauskaitė’s European background – just as the fact that her main opponent Zigmantas Balčytis served as an MEP since 2009 – played no significant role. The table below summarises the number of presidential elections and presidents (total & those with EU experience) as well as the average number of candidates (total & those with EU experience) for presidential elections held in EU member states since 1979. Out of the 484 candidates that ran for presidents in 69 different elections, only 38 (7.8%) could boast with experience in the European institutions. Nevertheless, 6 out of 52 presidents during this period had a European background, i.e. 11.5% and thus a slightly higher proportion. Nevertheless, EU experience only played a role for Lithuanian president and former EU commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite.

In case of the other presidents other factors were more important than their experience in EU institutions. In Estonia, president Toomas Hendrik Ilves had served as Foreign Minister for several years and had been a member of the Social Democratic Party’s leadership before being elected to the European parliament in 2004. At his election in 2006, Ilves’ international experience and recognition gained while in government generally played a greater role for his election than his two years as a MEP. In Hungary, president Pal Schmitt had been a MEP and vice-president of the European Parliament since 2004 before he was elected president in 2010. However, Schmitt’s loyalty to Prime Minister and party leader Viktor Orban and promise not to obstruct the government’s controversial reform agenda was more important for his election. Furthermore, the international experience that Schmitt gained as an ambassador and functionary of the Olympic Committee would have been more salient qualifications than his four years in Strasbourg and Brussels. Slovene president Borut Pahor served as MEP between 2004 and 2008. Nevertheless, Pahor’s following term as Prime Minister during 2008-2012 and previous role as speaker of the Slovene parliament (2000-2004) certainly trumped any influence of his EU experience. Last, French presidents Chirac (1005-2007) and Sarkozy (2007-2012) can claim some,  yet for the course of their further political career and presidency relatively insignificant EU experience. In 1979 Chirac was elected to the newly created European Parliament but gave up his mandate in 1980 in favour of his seat in the French National Assembly. Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as an MEP in 1999 but also resigned to keep his seat in the National Assembly.

Country Number of presidential elections Average number of candidates/
average number of candidates with EU experience
Total number of presidents/
presidents with EU experience
Austria 3 3.3 / n/a 2 / 0
Bulgaria 2 12.5 / 1 2 / 0
Cyprus 2 10 / 1 2 / 0
Czech Republic 2 5.5 / 1 2 / 0
Estonia 2 2.5 / 1.5 1 / 1
Finland 3 7.67 / 1.67 2 / 0
France 6 10 / 4.5 4 / 2
Germany 8 3 / n/a 6 / n/a
Greece 6 ? / n/a 4 / n/a
Hungary 3 1.67 / 0.3 3 / 1
Ireland 5 4.4 / 0.6 4 / 0
Italy 5 18 / 0.2 4 / 0
Latvia 2 3.5 / n/a 2 / n/a
Lithuania 3 6.33 / 1 2 / 1
Malta 2 1 / n/a 2 / n/a
Poland 2 11 / n/a 2 / n/a
Portugal 6 5 / 0.17 3 / 0
Romania 2 12 / 0.5 1 / 0
Slovakia 3 11 / n/a 2 / n/a
Slovenia 2 5 / 1.5 2 / 1
Total 69 7.02 / 0.55 52 / 6
Note: All calculations begin with the first presidential election since the country’s EU accession or  the first presidential election after 1979 (marking the first direct election of the European Parliament).

Regardless of how brief their European experience is, former or current MEPs run far more often for presidential office than (former) members of the Commission – the latter group only consists of three candidates: Meglena Kuneva (Bulgaria; 2011: 14%), Raymond Barre (France; 1988; 17%) and Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania; 2009: 68%; 2014: 46% / 58%). Hereby, MEPs running for president are typically leaders of smaller parties that do not generally have any chance at winning the presidential election (or even proceed into the second round of voting). An example of the former is Valdemar Tomaševski, chairman of the Polish Electoral Alliance in Lithuania who won only 4.7% of the vote in 2009 and 8.36% in 2014.

Europe does thus not generally represent a springboard for the presidency although the case of Dalia Grybauskaite shows that it can be beneficial.  Yet even in her case national political experience (Grybauskaite served as minister of finance 2001-2004) played at least a minor role and is thus overall more important than time served as the representative of European institutions.


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