Wednesday

23rd Sep 2020

EUobserved

Weber in balancing act en route to Berlaymont

  • Weber reviewing his notes before delivering his statement (Photo: European Parliament)

Dozens of EU correspondents and European Parliament officials had gathered in one of the parliament's many corridors on Wednesday (5 September), when Manfred Weber arrived.

When the crowd caught sight of the German MEP, the leader of the European People's Party (EPP), nearly everyone became silent.

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Although the "press point" that had been announced was not given a title, it was a public secret what Weber came to do.

He came to announce that he wanted to be his party's candidate for the post of European Commission president.

Weber stood between journalists for a few seconds, reviewing his prepared notes.

But the first surprise announcement was made by one of his aides: "Welcome to the statement of Mr Weber. Just to make you aware, it is not possible to take questions afterwards."

After his five-minute statement, delivered in English, Weber left to speak to a number of TV journalists, to whom he spoke in German.

The no-questions rule was then quickly thrown out the window, and Weber answered some specific queries - although mainly by offering alternatively worded versions of his original statement.

While much of what he told the German-speaking press was a direct translation of the statement he had given in English, some of the journalists apparently felt left out.

"Not everyone speaks German," one of them called out in complaint.

The grumbling journalist then heard the man in charge of PR say - in German - there had been no time for a full press conference.

A Dutch radio journalist followed Weber afterwards, asking him questions about his candidacy - but recording only silence from the German MEP.

His attitude was in sharp contrast with the style of Jean-Claude Juncker, the current occupant of the 13th floor of the commission's Berlaymont building.

Juncker has always been a much more free-speaking politician, and it is difficult to imagine Juncker refusing to speak if a microphone was put under his nose.

Balancing act

Communication style aside, Weber will want to find a way to distinguish himself from Juncker, who was the EPP's previous candidate.

Weber is in the difficult position of being the (potential) successor of the incumbent.

He will have to carry out a delicate balancing act, explaining what he would do differently than Juncker, while not-too-publicly denouncing the very policies his group has supported the past five years.

Weber said that Europe needed "a new plan", "new ideas" and "probably a new era for Europe".

"The European Union is seen from the perspective of the people too much as a bureaucratic, as an elite structure. I want to give Europe back to the people," he said.

However, he then went on to use words that were probably aimed at indirectly praising Juncker's time in office.

"Last year, or four years ago, we made already a first important step, to make Europe more democratic. I will continue to strengthen democracy in the European Union and the European institutions," said Weber.

A few minutes later Weber again made some comments that can be interpreted as criticism of Juncker's commission.

"Today's European Union is not connected to the people in the European Union," said Weber.

"I want to change this," he noted.

Weber said he wanted to build bridges between Europe's north and south, east and west, large and small states.

"We have to keep Europe together," he said.

Deja vu

Rewind to 2014, and when Juncker was nominated by the EPP as candidate for the top commission post, he too said that the gap between citizens and the EU needed to be closed, and that EU countries needed to stick together.

"It is important in Europe that we bring the north and south back together again," said Juncker in a 2014 speech.

"We all belong together: Greeks, Germans, Luxembourgians, Belgians, Portuguese, all of us," said Juncker.

He also said that Europe needed to be improved, and that the European level should only be about "big questions and not small things".

Juncker acknowledged that his 'big on big things' mantra is something that was proclaimed ahead of every European election.

"We have to ensure that this time after the elections we actually do that," he noted.

In May 2019, EU citizens will get the chance to determine how much has been achieved.

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