Pragmatic Weber edges towards EU’s centre stage
Bavarian and EPP candidate for the EU Commission is close Merkel ally
If Europe’s centre-right parties of the European People’s Party come out on top in next year’s European elections they will get the European Parliament’s backing for their new spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, to head the next European Commission.
Weber, an amiable and pragmatic 46-year-old Bavarian, leader of the EPP group of MEPs and an ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, will then be nominated to EU leaders as the parliament’s choice for the job of president of the commission on the understanding that, if he is not endorsed, MEPs will do their best to block any other name.
The clunky spitzenkandidat – lead candidate – procedure was adopted in 2014 by the European Parliament as a form of inter-institutional power grab, shoehorning Jean Claude Juncker into his job with the reluctant acquiescence of EU leaders.
There is no guarantee they will do so again, not least if there is a former prime minister – like, for example, Merkel – then interested in the job.
Weber, who has been an MEP for 16 years but has no state or federal ministerial – let alone prime ministerial – experience, has led the EPP group since 2014. He has served as deputy to his controversial and more conservative party leader, German interior minister Horst Seehoffer, who he is hoping to succeed.
The party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is the conservative ally at Bavarian state level of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It has been notably critical of the chancellor over what it sees as lax fiscal policies, at home and in the EU, and of her migration policies.
Weber, although notably more pro-European and moderate than the mainstream of the CSU, demanded more “strict border controls” in his EPP election speech, and opposes Turkish accession to the EU.
Unlike his rival for the EPP nomination, Finn Alexander Stubb, Weber does not favour expelling Hungary’s far-right leader Viktor Orban from the party, favouring dialogue instead. Cynics suggest he is more concerned with maximising the party vote – currently 219 in the 750-strong parliament.
Rule of law
Mindful of the mood of his MEPs, however, he backed the European Parliament’s move to sanction Budapest over breaches of the rule of law. And he called in his speech for the introduction of a “binding rule-of-law mechanism” to allow the EU to more easily bring wayward states like Poland and Hungary into line.
The EPP is said, however, also to have received applications from Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party, as well as the right-wing populist League in Italy – Weber’s predicament in rationalising such memberships may become more acute.
Presenting himself to the party this week, he boasted of his rural roots and ran a campaign stressing his love for his home village of Wildenberg near Munich. In the election debate he emphasised that farmers were at the heart of the party’s concerns.
A former choir boy, and a staunch Catholic who has described European values as “inspired by our Christian roots”, he was born in the district of Landshut. He studied engineering at university and, after graduating in 1996, founded a consultancy for environmental technology. He remains the managing director, according to his official website.
Weber led the CSU’s youth wing and in 2002, at 29, he was elected to the Bavarian state parliament as the state’s youngest parliamentarian. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2004 and to lead the EPP’s MEPs 10 years later.
In the contest for the EPP’s spitzenkandidat nomination he won 80 per cent of the vote against Stubb after getting backing from all of the party’s national leaders around Europe. (Juncker only took 60 per cent against Michel Barnier, in 2014.)
Although the EPP is likely to emerge from the elections in May as the largest party group in the European Parliament, Weber’s elevation to the commission presidency remains far from guaranteed because of the EU leaders’ hostility to the process.
But many are already talking about a consolation prize for him – the European Parliament presidency.
‘‘ Weber does not favour expelling Hungary’s far-right leader Viktor Orban from the EPP, favouring dialogue instead