Two months after announcing his candidacy to lead the party in the upcoming European Elections as the European People’s Party’s (EPP) top candidate to take over for current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in next year’s elections, Manfred Weber, now find himself in a commanding position to head the EU with the bloc cautiously moving into a critical phase of its existence as anti-EU nationalism and open hostility from the US and Russia threaten the unity of the European project.
The EPP’s Congress in the Finnish capital Helsinki saw delegates choose Weber with over 70% of the vote as he bested Finland’s ex-prime minister and deputy chief of the European Investment Bank, Alexander Stubb to be the centre-right party’s lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, in the May 2019 elections.
Along with last week’s official announcement by the Socialists and Democrats that European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans would be their candidate for the EU’s top job brings the European Union one step closer to knowing the direction the bloc will take as it looks to redefine itself in the wake of the global financial crisis and the rise of Eurosceptic populism, as well as the fallout from the UK’s decision to voluntarily withdraw from the union only two months before the May elections.
The EPP is currently the largest group in European politics, with 49 member parties across the EU’s 28 nations and six EU heads coming from its extended political family. This could mean that Weber, a German from the conservative Christian Social Union, could be the frontrunner to succeed Juncker as Commission president.
Regarded as Angela Merkel’s preferred candidate since day one, Weber identifies himself as a European within Germany’s most conservative faction of the EPP. A veteran of the Brussels establishment, Weber seemed the less obvious choice to observers of the EPP’s politics, but those who were privy to the details of his candidacy said his positions were more in line with the majority of the delegations from various EPP members, more so than his Spitzenkandidat rival, Stubb.
Stubb was seen by most observers as both a charismatic and pragmatic moderate, who had a more versatile and forward-thinking platform than Weber. As Member of the European Parliament and former prime minister, Stubb appeared better suited to match the multinational platform that the EPP has tried to project as his wife is from the UK and his kids identify as binational.
The EPP’s delegates, looking down the road at the fight ahead against anti-EU nationalist, decided they needed to field a different candidate to better their chances of securing the Commission presidency for the party.
Speaking to several delegates from the EU Institutions in Helsinki, New Europe learned that Stubb’s lost bid is being seen by many as a missed opportunity for the EU to show a new face for European politics.
It seems, however, that the majority of the EPP delegates responded positively to Weber’s references to his and Europe’s Christian roots, which earned him several rounds of applause during his pitch to the congress attendees.
Weber has attracted criticism for his reluctance challenge the EPP membership of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his nationalist party Fidesz at a time when Hungary is increasingly turning its back to European values, the EPP endorsed an unpublicised reprimand of Orbán and his party, but not without having caved to pressure from the Hungarian delegates.
Fidesz’s party officials were able to alter the working of the resolution at the last minute by forcing the rest of the EPP to remove “liberal democracy” from its mission statement and replace it with “the rule of law”.
The paragraph in question concerned the “clear European added value” that the EU budget must have as part of its effort to communicate, via local dialogues, with average citizens to help them be more aware of the EU’s purpose.
Greek EPP party, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, told New Europe during the Helsinki Congress that the Orbán saga should finally be over after Fidesz’s members endorsed the “Protecting EU Values and Safeguarding Democracy” resolution.
The resolution writes that values and freedoms that “are being challenged in an unprecedented manner,” such as rule of law, independent media, a vibrant civil society, strong EU institutions, and the independence of the judiciary.
According to Mitsotakis, the text is “very strict” and therefore the ongoing problems with Hungary should be resolved.
Orbán backs Weber, Weber backs Orbán
“In a family, we might disagree, but we always stand together,” Orbán said during his speech to the EPP congress delegates, later adding that none of them should trust “those who build personal ambitions based on dividing our EPP family using socialist and liberal accusations.”
His message, though still ambiguous about how he plans to adhere to the principals that the EPP laid out for Fidesz, was clear when it came to his gratitude to Weber for endorsing Fidesz and visiting Hungary on behalf of the EPP during the country’s elections last spring.
Weber has returned the favour by consistently refusing to challenge Fidesz’s membership in the EPP.
Weber’s candidacy a fait accompli?
The EPP’s decision to choose Weber does not mean that the Bavarian politician will automatically become the next European Commission president as there still remains the possibility that a rejection of the entire Spitzenkandidaten model could occur before the next European Parliament meeting.
Stiff opposition to the lead candidate model, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, remains a powerful lobby that could still influence the way the next head of the EU is selected.