Prag­matic We­ber edges to­wards EU’s cen­tre stage

Bavar­ian and EPP can­di­date for the EU Com­mis­sion is close Merkel ally

The Irish Times - - World News - Pa­trick Smyth Eu­rope Ed­i­tor

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.

Ru­ral roots

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

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