Euro chess

Merkel may sacrifice ECB post to clinch EU Commission presidency

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Brussels trumps Frankfurt. Source: Reuters

Jens Weidmann, the influential head of Germany’s central bank, may consider himself a master of the universe, but he could soon become a pawn in Angela Merkel’s game of EU chess.

The German chancellor, top government sources say, has set her sights on getting a German as president of the European Commission and is willing to give up the European Central Bank presidency she promised to Mr. Weidmann.

In her cold realpolitical way, Ms. Merkel is calculating that Berlin can exert greater influence in the EU with the top job in the bloc’s executive body. The recent trade deal between the current commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and US President Donald Trump demonstrated once again the potential power of the office.

Both jobs, as well as that of European Council president, the representative of EU leaders, are up for grabs next year, and must be divvied up among various EU members. Germany has never held the presidency of the ECB, and its only commission president was Walter Hallstein, back in the 1950s, when the then-EEC was something quite different.

Don’t bank on it

By definition, the apolitical ECB president can’t strike political deals but must vote with colleagues on the governing council for policies that are best for the entire eurozone. Mr. Weidmann, for all his qualities, is controversial because of his hawkish stance on monetary policy and it’s not even certain he could sway the council to follow his guidance.

Ms. Merkel has a number of potential candidates for the commission job. Manfred Weber, a member of the Bavarian wing of her conservative alliance, is currently the leader of the conservative grouping in the European Parliament. As such, he is well-positioned to take on the presidency, which according to the newest tradition should go to the leader of the bloc that wins the most seats in the parliament elections next year.

But the chancellor has other choices. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is not too popular with her military constituency and would have the advantage of putting a woman into the mix for the EU job.

Government sources, however, say the smart money is on Peter Altmaier, Ms. Merkel’s longtime confidant, who is currently serving as economics minister. These sources note that he has made few changes in the staffing at the ministry and spends most of his time glad-handing around Europe instead of mixing it up with Germany’s trading partners — both signs he sees the cabinet post as a stepping-stone to Brussels.

French fancies

The other factor in the EU chess game is France, which has an elevated sense of its importance and currently has none of the top jobs. French President Emmanuel Macron formed his own party from scratch, so it doesn’t belong to any of the existing blocs in the European Parliament, giving him little leverage to determine the commission president.

However, he does have a couple of able candidates for the ECB job — French central bank president François Villeroy de Galhau and Benoît Coeuré, currently an ECB executive board member. And waiting in the wings there is always Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister and current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who might welcome a top job in Europe.

In her recent speeches, Ms. Merkel has emphasized that the EU needs to move beyond a strictly financial perspective. In that context, it makes a lot more sense for Germany to seek the commission job rather than content itself with the ECB post.

Several Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this article. Washington, DC, editor Darrell Delamaide adapted it into English. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com

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