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25th Mar 2019

EPP poised to pick lead candidate, amid struggle over Orban

  • The choice between Alexander Stubb (l) and Manfred Weber (r) is a 'luxury problem' to have, according the EPP's vice president (Photo: European People's Party - Flickr)

The EU's largest political party's congress gathered in Helsinki on Wednesday (7 November) to nominate its lead candidate for next year's European election - with Germany's Manfred Weber expected to clinch the position.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) is preparing to battle populists at the European election in May, where anti-establishment forces are expected to surge to an extent which could upset the bloc's future decision-making process.

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Weber, who is the EPP's group leader in the European Parliament, is up against Finland's former prime minister, Alexander Stubb, whose campaign seems to have brought a breath of fresh air into the so-called Spitzenkandidate process.

The procedure, first tested in 2014, is aimed at engaging voters in the pan-European election, with each European party family nominating its own lead candidate in the campaign.

The winner, after forging a coalition in the European parliament, could become the next president of the European Commission, if member states' leaders confirm him - which is not an automatic decision.

EPP officials expect Weber to emerge victoriously at the vote on Thursday in what they argue is the only 'real' race in the election campaign - after the socialists lined up behind commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, and the liberals are mulling to put forward a team of candidates.

The EPP's secretary general, Antonio Lopez-Isturiz White, poked at liberals, whose own congress kicks off on Thursday, claiming French president Emmanuel Macron's personal dislike for the lead candidate process has prevented the liberals from putting forward one candidate.

Stubb, in his campaign, pledged to fight populists at the polls.

Weber, who is actually younger than his Finnish rival (despite Stubb's campaign portraying the their man as the 'next generation'), is seen within the party as someone who can build bridges between the more liberal-minded EPP parties and those seeking to push the party further to the right.

"Weber has experience of leading the group for the past five years. The EPP is a big group, we are people's party, so sometimes a difficult group to manage," Belgian commissioner and EPP vice-president Marianne Thyssen told journalists on the sidelines of the congress.

"He is a bridge-builder, he really has the capacity to bring people together who start with a different position on a certain file," she added.

Thyssen said the party was facing a "luxury problem", in that both candidates are Christian Democrats, believe in social market economy, and are European-minded.

"There will be no losers," she said.

But the European People's Party is facing the same dilemma as its constituent parties confront in member states - trying to stop populist, nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-establishment forces eating away their voter base.

EPP president Joseph Daul dismissed the idea of his party pulling toward the right to counter the populist challenge.

Pointing to France's Les Republicains party's nomination of EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier as a lead candidate (who in the end decided not to run), Daul said he did not see it as a move to the right.

"It is not Le Pen, maybe the language has changed slightly, there has been an adjustment, this is a new generation," Daul said, referring to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

He also said it was unfair that when socialists sit together with extreme left, "no one says anything".

"When we do the same thing, we are getting blocked, it hurts me," Daul said.

Orban - the 'enfant terrible'

But the EPP still has yet to deal with populists among their won ranks, namely Hungary's ruling Fidesz.

In September, with support from the majority of EPP lawmakers, the European Parliament triggered a sanctions procedure against Hungary's government for being in "clear risk" of seriously breaching EU rules and values.

Weber voted in favour of the resolution, putting him in a good position to sway other mainstream parties, such as the liberals and social democrats, to join him in a coalition after the election, which the EPP is expected to 'win' - even if it will lose some of its seats.

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, who has become an icon of far-right populists all over Europe with his self-styled "illiberal democracy", has been a source of frustration for many EPP members.

There have been growing calls inside and outside of the party to expel Fidesz, since Orban has been undeterred by EPP criticisms of his efforts to centralise power and weaken democratic institutions.

MEPs at the congress remind that letting Orban go carries its own risks, as the he is seen as the leader of the European far-right, close to Russian president Vladimir Putin - and Fidesz's expulsion would not help the situation on the ground in Hungary.

The EPP's presidency have put forward a resolution defending liberal democracy and its institutions, in an effort to cement the party in the centre-ground and send a message to Orban to recommit to shared values, such as the rule of law and an independent media.

Fidesz is expected to back the resolution on Wednesday, which the EPP leadership wants to use as a rulebook for dealing with Fidesz in the future.

However, the EPP has not set out any concrete sanctions in case Fidesz ignores these values.

Daul, at his press conference, said again that party rules require seven parties from five member states to trigger a procedure to expel Fidesz, but added that he preferred dialogue.

"Since I am a Christian Democrat, I prefer keeping my 'enfant terrible' in the family, and keep talking to that child," Daul said referring to Orban.

Finland's finance minister and leader of its EPP-member National Coalition Party, Petteri Orpo, told journalists that his party is ready to start discussions on an expulsion, but added that they need six other parties.

"EPP stands for human rights, rule of law, democracy, these are the foundation of the European societies, these are not for negotiations, for those who don't support these values, the EPP is not the right family," he said.

The EPP has set red lines for Orban, particularly with regards to the fate of the Central European University in Budapest, which was founded by US billionaire George Soros, and which is under threat by the government.

The CEU has said it would decide next month whether to move to Vienna.

Daul told reporters a case regarding the CEU is pending before the EU's top court, the European Court of Justice, whose ruling will have to be implemented - but did not address what happens if CEU is forced to move before that verdict.

"We have this resolution and I think it is not by chance, it is not just because we like to see again that we have certain values and that we have to defend them," commissioner Thyssen said on Orban.

"We see what we see, and that is the reason why we think it is good to repeat them, and to make it very clear. And we will look who votes for and against, and then it is up to the party to see what we do," the EPP vice president said.

"We have an ongoing debate and sometimes it is a hard debate. It's not just like we talk all the time like good friends, sometimes it is very, very hard," she added.

EPP aims to tame Orban with 'values' resolution

The centre-right political family plans a resolution defending 'European values' - in an effort to cement its place in the political centre ahead of elections in May, and remind members (including Hungary's Fidesz) what the party is about.

Opinion

EPP Spitzen-race: choice between Coke Light and Coke Zero

As the Spitzenkandidat process starts up again - for only the second time - the EPP group selects its lead candidate in Helsinki. Amongst the choreographed friendly rivalry, there are still a lot of policy blanks to fill in.

EU's centre-right make Weber their man to replace Juncker

The centre-right EPP party's congress wanted to show unity - but divisions remain after the political alliance lined up behind Germany's Manfred Weber as their 'Spitzenkandidat' ahead of next year's European election.

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