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24th Mar 2019

German conservative to run for Juncker's job

  • Weber approaching the podium in the EP announcing his candidacy (Photo: European Parliament)

Manfred Weber, leader of the largest group in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), announced on Wednesday (5 September) that he is seeking to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as the EU's chief executive.

Weber's bid to be president of the European Commission kicks off the campaign for elections to the European Parliament in May on an EU level.

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  • Juncker and Weber (r) hail from the same political party, the EPP (Photo: European Parliament)

The 46-year old politician hails from the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

Weber announced his bid in the EP's Brussels building, saying he wanted to kickstart a new era and reconnect with EU citizens, to build bridges, and to increase democracy in the EU.

"People see the EU as too much a bureaucratic, elite structure, I want to give Europe back to the people," Weber told journalists, but did not take questions after his announcement.

Weber has been a member of the European Parliament for 14 years.

He has led the centre-right group for the last four years, which saw a major rift opening up within the EPP over how to handle Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, a key EPP ally, who has broken EU values and rule of law and cemented his power by curbing checks and balances.

Despite calls for pushing Orban's Fidesz party out, Weber stood by the Hungarian prime minister, who has formed a strong political bond with Weber's CSU party.

"We are being challenged from outside, the EU is also being attacked from the inside, the radicals, the anti-Europeans, by those who don't believe in the idea of partnership, and the whole world is in transition," Weber said on Wednesday.

"Today it is about the self-preservation of Europe, it is about the defence of values, and the survival of the European way of life," he said.

His critics say he did little to defend EU values when facing Orban.

When pressed by journalists on Wednesday he avoided answering questions on Hungary, saying that specific issue will be debated in the group next week.

"Whoever wants to become president of the commission must defend European values. Manfred Weber can prove this next week in the vote on Hungary. How do you feel about Orban?," Ska Keller, co-chair of the greens in the EP tweeted, referring to a vote in the European parliament next week on whether to launch a sanctions procedure against Hungary for breaching EU values and rules.

The Bavarian politician also lacks executive experience, raising questions on his capacity to steer the 30,000 eurocrats who work for the commission.

The previous and current commission presidents have both been prime ministers.

Elmar Brok, a German MEP from CDU, said he supported Weber's bid for the commission presidency.

"He should be president, he has a high level of experience, he successfully ran the biggest group in the parliament, he is the vice chairman of a governing party in Germany," he told journalists on Wednesday.

Merkel's backing

Weber is the first to officially announce his candidacy for the top EU post.

He suggested that it should be the European citizens who decide on the commission president through the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, but that might not be the case this time.

It was first applied in the previous European parliament elections in 2014, when the major political groups each selected a lead candidate - 'Spitzenkandidat' in German.

The parliament insisted that whichever party won the elections, and managed to build a majority in the assembly, its Spitzenkandidat should become the new president of the commission.

The EPP emerged from the last election as the largest group, and its candidate, former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, became president of the commission.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose word is decisive on the issue, four years ago underestimated the political drive behind the spitzenkandidaten process.

Merkel backed Juncker during the campaign, thinking the final decision would come as a compromise among 28 countries and backed away from formally endorsing the Luxembourgish politician after the elections.

A backlash by MEPs and German politicians ensued and Merkel, in the end, backed Juncker to be commission president, despite her reservations.

The process is deemed by national politicians to be an institutional power grab, because it has little footing in the EU treaty, which states only that the election results should be taken into account when choosing a new commission president.

Supporters of the process say it helps bridge the democratic deficit between the citizens and the EU commission, even though few voters in the EU knew they were in fact voting for or against Juncker.

French president Emmanuel Macron does not support the process - partly because he does not have a party in the European parliament, which could influence the race.

Instead, he previously championed having transnational electoral lists, an idea that was defeated in the parliament.

No automatism

Other leaders have also stated that there would be "no automatism" between the parliament's leading candidate and who will be chosen by the member states' governments to lead the EU executive.

Merkel tentatively gave her backing to Weber, saying on Wednesday that she welcomed his bid to succeed Juncker.

The final decision of the EPP on its leading candidate will be made on 8 November in Helsinki.

Finland's former prime minister and current vice president at the European Investment Bank, Alexander Stubb is another possible candidate for the top job.

He congratulated Weber for running, tweeting: "Manfred is an excellent candidate and I wish him good luck."

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is reportedly also interested in the job.

Merkel, Macron and other EU leaders will decide on the next EU commission president after the elections next May, and leaders are expected to make the decision on the next commission president at their summit in June on who should take over from Juncker in November.

The final decision will also be influenced by who will get the other top EU jobs, such as the next president of the European Central Bank, the EU's foreign policy chief, and the president of the European Council, as leaders strive to have balance between small and large, eastern and western member states.

EU leaders nix transnational lists, cool on 'Spitzenkandidat'

The 'Brussels bubble' ideas for transnational electoral lists was put on ice at the summit, while Jean-Claude Juncker's idea for an EU 'super president' was also rejected. The 'Spitzenkandidat' proposal backed by the European parliament also suffered a rebuff.

EU leaders to review 'Spitzenkandidat' process

EU leaders have said they plan to review the process for choosing EU commission presidents in the future after having found themselves left with little room for manoeuvre following a parliament-pushed process.

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