Cen­tre-right can­di­dates con­tend for top EU job to re­place Juncker

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Jen­nifer Rankin in Helsinki

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.”

Pho­to­graph: Kimmo Brandt/EPA

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.

Pho­to­graph: Ber­nadett Sz­abó/Reuters

Hun­gary’s prime min­is­ter, Vik­tor Or­bán.

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