Chancellor Angela Merkel backed a German bid to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as EU chief executive on Wednesday, signalling a start to campaigning for May’s European elections amid jockeying for top jobs among member states.
Manfred Weber, 46, who leads the pan-EU conservative group in the European Parliament, announced he would seek nomination as the party’s lead candidate for the election with the aim of then taking over as president of the European Commission.
Merkel quickly made public her support, putting Weber in prime position to lead the European People’s Party list.
Polls show the EPP is likely to remain the biggest group in the chamber. But Weber is far from certain to succeed Juncker.
First, he may face challenges for the EPP nomination in November, including from French Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb. The Bavarian’s lack of high government office may count against him.
Even if he does lead the EPP to victory in May, Weber also faces opposition from many national leaders who after the election will nominate Juncker’s successor to run the Brussels administration. They reject Parliament’s demands that the leaders choose one of the parties’ lead candidates — a system known from its German origins as the Spitzenkandidat process.
Coming just after major power Britain leaves the bloc next March, and amid a rising volume of nationalist complaints against Brussels in other countries, the parliamentary vote will determine the political make-up of an important element in making laws applied across the European Union.
The battle between nationalists and federalists, and then between national governments and the European Parliament over which has the major say in forming the executive Commission which proposes and implements EU policy, will also influence the extent to which Brussels increases or loses its central powers.
French President Emmanuel Macron strongly opposes that automatic linkage between the election and the Commission job and Merkel herself is ambivalent. On Wednesday, she said only that “the EPP lead candidate could in principle also become the European Commission president”.
With a host of other EU posts to be filled in the coming year, notably that of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, Merkel and other government leaders are engaged in a delicate game of strategy over which to seek for compatriots or political allies. Securing the Commission presidency may not be a priority for Berlin, not least as holding such a high-profile job could fuel perceptions the EU is a vehicle for German power.
Weber made his campaign pitch as a “bridge builder” who could hold together coalitions of party and national interests at a time when the EU is under threat from unfriendly powers abroad and nationalists within. “It’s about the survival of our European way of life,” he said in a brief campaign statement.
He also insisted that the eventual choice of Commission president should be determined by the parliamentary elections, arguing that this would respond to many Europeans’ perceptions that the Union is an undemocratic, elitist club.
Macron and others dismiss that argument, saying national leaders in the European Council should have a free choice as they have stronger popular mandates than a legislature whose role, and even very existence, is unclear to many voters.