Replacing Juncker

Manfred Weber's rocky bid to lead EU Commission

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Thumbs up for me. Source: DPA

Bavarian Manfred Weber, softly spoken and eloquent, on Wednesday announced he wants to become the lead candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the 2019 European elections and the next president of the EU Commission.

That would make him the first German to run the EU’s executive arm since 1967.

The incumbent Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is not seeking a new term after his expires in November 2019.

Holding the bloc together

In his campaign pitch, Mr. Weber, a moderate voice in the Christian Social Union party of hardline German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, said he could hold the bloc together at a time when it 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 statement. “We can only be strong if we stick together, otherwise Europe doesn’t have a chance in today’s world,” he said. He also pledged to bring the EU closer to the people. “The EU is too much of an elite organization,” he said.

The 46-year-old has the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed his candidacy. The conservative EPP is the biggest transnational group in the European Parliament and will likely remain so after the EU election next May.

Hurdles to jump

Still, Mr. Weber faces a number of major hurdles including European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who is keeping her options open and could end up clinching the post instead.

The first major hurdle comes in November when the EPP convenes in Helsinki to choose a lead candidate for the elections. Mr. Weber may have been the first candidate to throw his hat in the ring, but there will be others, most likely including Finnish MEP Alexander Stubb, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis. They have until October 17 to declare their candidacy.

Party sources said Mr. Weber has a good chance of securing the EPP’s nomination because he has a strong reputation in the parliament while the other candidates have drawbacks — Mr. Stubb is seen as an outsider in the EPP and Mr. Barnier will only be able to run if he negotiates an exit treaty with Britain in time, which is far from certain. Mr. Dombrovskis, meanwhile, a former Latvian prime minister, still needs to get the backing of his home country.

The second hurdle — making sure the EPP stays the biggest political force in the European Parliament in next year’s election — also looks manageable for Mr. Weber. Currently, Europe’s Social Democrats are mired in crisis, and the liberals and right-wing populists are unlikely to threaten the EPP’s lead even though they are predicted to make gains.

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You're looking at Weber's toughest competition. Source: AP

Watch out for Vestager

But then it gets harder. The EU’s heads of government have the right to nominate their candidate for the Commission presidency and will likely do so at the EU summit in June 2019  — and there are doubts whether they will agree on Mr. Weber because he lacks government experience.

So far, Commission presidents have all been former prime ministers or at least ministers. Mr. Weber’s career has been confined to parliamentary politics.

There are rumors in Brussels that the leaders might opt for Mrs. Vestager instead. She could become the lead candidate for the liberal ALDE group, short for the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe. She was economics minister of Denmark and may get crucial support from French President Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Macron plans to build a new political group in the European parliament after the elections and may ally his La République En Marche! movement with ALDE.

If the EU summit picks Mrs. Vestager as the leaders’ candidate, Mr. Weber’s fourth hurdle would become virtually insurmountable — the parliament has to elect the Commission president and Mrs. Vestager, popular in Brussels for going after some of the world’s biggest companies such as Apple and Google, would likely get many votes from MEPs of other parties. She also wins bonus points because Greens and the left have been campaigning for years to have more women in top posts.

Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. To contact the author:berschens@handelsblatt.com

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