Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

EUobserved

Weber and Stubb perform jab-free political boxing show

They looked like twins from a boy band. White shirts, no ties, deep and lighter blue jackets, white handkerchiefs above the heart, wide smiles. They also sang the same tunes.

It was difficult to spot the difference between Manfred Weber and Alexander Stubb in the European People's Party's non-debate of its two senior politicians seeking to become the centre-right party's lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, in the May 2019 elections.

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The 40-minute EPP love-fest was moderated by MEP Mairead McGuinness, vice president of the European Parliament and a long-time MEP for the EPP - hardly the person to challenge any of the candidates.

They ended their unison with the Sisters Sledge's 1979 hit We Are Family playing in the Helsinki congress hall, where hundreds of EPP delegates listened to the German and Finnish politicians.

But at least there was an attempt at a debate. And getting rid of the ties counts as nothing less than a "revolution" in conservative circles, quipped one party member after the show.

There was also, however, one serious lesson from this awkward political show on Wednesday (7 November) evening: Manfred Weber, the German conservative leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament, can be accessible and connect with people.

He is almost certain to win the nomination of his party later on Thursday to lead the EU's largest political group into the campaign ahead of the European elections next year and thus possibly clinch the presidency of the European Commission.

A linguistic difference revealed the small fault line between the two candidates, as Weber addressed "Christian Democrats" and Stubb talked about the "EPP".

On the content, there was little difference between the conservative Bavarian Weber, and the more liberal Nordic Stubb.

Weber said the biggest challenge facing the EU is to deal with outside threats, Russia and China, and internal threats such as France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen or the nationalist government of Poland.

Stubb added Italy to the inside threats, whose populist government wants to push through a budget plan despite concerns from other euro area governments.

There was little mention of the elephant in the room, Hungary's premier Viktor Orban, whose government is under the same sanctions procedure as Poland. Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, however, belongs to a different political family.

Weber said he would support common decision-making in foreign policy matters, and also said that he would push for a binding rule of law mechanism to protect values in member states once they are inside the EU.

Both of them pledged their support for rule of law, democracy, fundamental values. Weber emphasised the importance of compromise and regretted that nowadays those who make compromises are portrayed as losers.

Stubb stressed the importance of human rights and highlighted minority rights as an important value to defend.

Weber and Stubb agreed that the way to overcome populism is to reconnect with people.

'Great job'

One of the most interesting parts in the debate was when the duo debated how to help the proverbial truck driver, who is going to lose his job thanks to digitalisation, and self-driving cars.

While Weber showed empathy by stressing the Christian Democrats need to strengthen their belief in the social market economy, Stubb argued digitalisation, and the shifting global order presents an opportunity for Europe to assert itself on the world stage.

"This element of social thinking, that we care about those who are losing their job will be crucial to our campaign," Weber said. Stubb added he wanted to re-engage that truck driver in a new European digital economy. He argued that Europe has to take on Google, Apple if it wants to stay relevant.

Weber - earning probably the loudest applause of the night - said the EPP first has to be proud of steering the EU out of the economic crisis. "We did a great job," Weber said, highlighting that EPP campaigned under the shadow of austerity policies in 2014.

Both stood up for solidarity among member states, distributing some of the asylum seekers across the continent, something eastern and central European governments have refused to do. Defending the borders received big applause in the room as well.

Stubb also scored some points with the 750-plus delegates, when he made a dig at Emmanuel Macron, saying the French president was polarising the continent when he says there are 'good and bad' Europeans.

Win-win, whatever happens

At the end of the non-debate, Stubb unveiled a sentiment that lingered in the congress hall in Helsinki. "Whatever happens the EPP will win, so it's good news in that sense," the Finnish politician said when the moderator asked if they both want to win.

There is a sense that the EU's largest political alliance has become complacent - precisely because it is the biggest political group, and they are untouchable.

Even as anti-establishment parties threaten the European integration project and mainstream political families, the EPP still see socialists and liberals as their main competitors.

"Stubb at least brought some fresh dynamism into the campaign, otherwise the party is pale and weary," a disgruntled delegate said. "There will be a rude awakening next May when they meet reality face-to-face," the delegate added.

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