Centre-right candidates contend for top EU job to replace Juncker
It is an election campaign intended to catapult the winner into one of the EU’s top jobs, but 445 million voters could be forgiven for not noticing.
Europe’s largest political group, the centre-right European People’s party (EPP), will on Thursday choose their candidate to run the European commission, the powerful executive that drafts and enforces EU law.
The electorate, composed of 700 delegates from Europe’s centre-right parties, will be choosing between two male politicians.
The favourite is Manfred Weber, a softly spoken German MEP, who leads the EPP in the European parliament. He once described European values as “inspired by our Christian roots” and has run a campaign stressing his Bavarian village background.
The other candidate is Alexander Stubb, a multilingual, former Finnish prime minister, who attended the London School of Economics. He completes Ironman Triathlons and likes to talk of the “fourth industrial revolution”. The winner will become the favourite to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, if the group wins the largest number of MEPs in the European elections in May.
The parliament’s second-largest bloc, the Socialists amp; Democrats, this week chose the current European commission vice-president, Frans Timmermans, as its lead candidate for the job.
The EPP vote comes amid tension in the group over how to manage Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, its most disruptive national leader. Stubb has argued that Orbán should leave the group if he does not sign up to a European state-
ment of values agreed upon by EPP delegates on Wednesday.
The guidance states that the bloc’s money should not be spent in countries “where fundamental EU values and the rule of law are not respected”, or where there is no cooperation with investigations by the EU’s anti-fraud office – an implicit reference to Orbán, who has been accused of treating the EU like a cash register.
But Weber and the EPP hierarchy oppose throwing Orbán out, fearing it could boost the nationalist right. “In every family there is an enfant terrible,” Joseph Daul, the EPPpresident, told journalists. “But as I am a Christian Democrat I prefer keeping my enfant terrible inside the family and to try to talk to him, to reason with him.”
Brexit is one issue the candidates agree on; both regret the UK decision. “Brexit is one of the biggest travesties we have seen in international history,” said Stubb, who has a British wife and children with joint nationality. “Leaving the European Union is a bit like leaving the internet. You can do it, but it’s kind of stupid.”
Weber said the EU had to show voters in the 2019 European elections that there was a benefit to membership. “If you don’t show the difference between being a member of the European Union and being outside that will have a huge impact on the election campaign and that is why we have to be clear. It must make a difference when you are leaving the EU.”
Juncker was the EPP’s lead candidate going into the 2014 European elections but, whether Stubb or Weber win, it is not guaranteed either will become commission president.
EU leaders dislike the system and have insisted there is no automatic link that means the lead candidate of the biggest group after the elections is propelled to the top job. Proponents argue that it is more democratic, because the electorate – some 445 million after Brexit – get to choose. That argument has been rejected by national governments.
“It is bullshit,” said one senior European source, arguing there was nothing undemocratic about democratically elected governments choosing people to run the EU’s institutions.
In 2014 government leaders had little choice. “They felt cornered,” recalls Luuk van Middelaar, who was a senior adviser to the European council president at the time. “They didn’t like the system but they had to swallow the nomination of Juncker. Even the Bildnewspaper was writing that the EU would look like a banana republic if it didn’t nominate Juncker.”
While the contest has the paraphernalia of a campaign – badges, Tshirts, a Barack Obama-style poster of Weber, a Stubb hot-dog stand – it remains an insider affair. The EPP had decided it would not run a public debate.
The candidates, however, did produce contrasting two-minute videos to introduce themselves. Weber, in softfocus light, was shown in his home village, greeting people in local shops, striding over fields and making the sign of the cross in an ornate church. The video, focusing on Weber the man, runs for more than a minute before he mentions the EU institutions. “Europe was always my passion, but frankly coming home is really what makes me happy.”
Stubb, often deemed to be the most media-savvy candidate, offered a series of mostly static images showing himself attending meetings in Brussels with no voiceover. To the cadences of a soft-rock anthem, Stubb is shown getting out of a car and shaking hands, speaking into a thicket of media microphones at a summit, and, in a slightly outdated image, with EU power brokers. His slogan: “The next generation of Europe.”
Whatever the result of the vote on Thursday the lead-candidate system has divided opinion. “It is progress,” said Van Middelaar, the former EU adviser, who is also a political theorist and historian. “It opens up the kind of Europewide political arena and the EU-wide political stage, where candidates from different countries can not only fight for a top job but also show themselves to the public.”
But he thought it had flaws. The most important one was that “it feeds the misunderstanding” that the commission president runs Europe like a government. “He or she does not have – even with this system – the legitimacy to take really tough decisions.”
The German MEP Manfred Weber (left) and Finland’s former prime minister AlexanderStubb, the two commission president candidates up for selection by the European People’sparty.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.