Commission President Manfred Weber?

Commission President Manfred Weber? 5 reasons why this pronouncement might be premature

2019 is widely seen as a make-or-break year in the European Union. The United Kingdom “leaves” at midnight CET on March 29. More critically, perhaps, EU voters will in late May elect 705 new Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who will, in turn, choose a new European Commission (EC) president in July on the nomination of the European Council (EUCO). This process and its outcome will be determined by who emerges as the European Parliament’s (EP’s) Spitzenkandidat  (lead candidate). Or maybe not.

On current form (see chart below[a1] ) Manfred Weber, a conservative Bavarian recently overwhelmingly chosen as Spitzenkandidat of the centre-right European People’s Party, will follow the precedent set by fellow-EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker and become the next Commission president. He easily beat off a challenge from former Finnish premier Alex Stubb, winning 79 percent of the votes at the EPP congress.

But there’s no reason why this should happen even though the European Parliament voted in February this year for a resolution that insists EUCO (EU heads of state or government) must nominate the lead candidate of the party/political family winning the most EP seats. Indeed, there are several reasons why this frictionless transition may prove a chimera.

First, Weber will almost certainly face challengers. We know that these will include Frans Timmermans, a Dutch social democrat and current EC vice-president. He will lead the (currently second-placed in the EP) Socialists & Democrats (S&D) into battle following the recent withdrawal of potential rival Maroš Šefčovič’, a Slovak who is now EC energy commissioner. Given the free-fall in which social democratic parties find themselves in key member states (Germany, France, Italy, his native Netherlands) his chances can be rated poor.

The (currently third-placed) European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), originally formed by former UK premier David Cameron and his fellow Tories, have opted for an unknown Czech MEP, Jan Zahradil, as their Spitzenkandidat. His pitch is to dismiss Weber and Timmermans as the “tired old EU guard” or “Diet Coke and Zero Coke” who are “too enmeshed in a single idea of ​​integration: the federalist one….” The group, however, will lose all its 18 Tory MEPs while the 15 Law & Justice (PiS) MEPs from Poland may decline in numbers.

A second reason why Weber may not become EC president, or at least automatically, is that the Spitzenkandidat process is itself seriously queried. Many EUCO members, not least French President Emmanuel Macron, don’t see why they should not exercise their freedom of choice (as per the Treaties) and choose an EC president on and of their own. Macron is behind the recent decision of his En Marche movement/party to team up with the Liberal ALDE group and put forward several lead candidates (a Spitzenkandidatmannschaft) such as competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager and EP Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt.

There is seething anger among several leading EU figures, including Macron and ALDE, that the process has not expanded to embrace full pan-European political parties or groupings. Similarly, the outright federalists such as the Spinelli Group want to select a cross-party “progressive” candidate (or several) to lead such a putative group (for more see here). The Greens/EFA may choose a dual candidacy, certainly including youthful German MEP Ska Keller, when they decide later this month.

Third, the new EP is likely to be far more disparate in terms of groups/political families than ever before. It is, critically, likely to be dominated by a rift between populist nationalists of right and left and traditional centrist pro-Europeans (or globalists). Central and East Europeans, assuming they turn out to vote, may join forces with voters in, say, Germany, France and Italy to elect slews of ultra-nationalist/far right MEPs. Neither the ENF of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally/Matteo Salvini’s League nor the EFDD (short of UKIP but boosted by Germany’s AfD and Italy’s Five Stars) is expected to put forward their own Spitzenkandidat  but could play a, if not the, crucial role in selecting/electing one to be EC president. Then, one should not forget the unknown/unknowable impact of political elements such as the pan-EU European Spring of Yanis Varoufakis or Steve Bannon’s Movement.

Fourth, even if the EPP remains the strongest group in the 2019-2024 EP, it may not be able to rely on the S&D either to endorse Weber as EC president nominee or deliver enough votes to elect him should it opt to retain the current ‘grand coalition’ in the EP. Where will it then turn to form a majority (353 MEPs or more)? The ENF or EFDD on the far right or the fissiparous ECR on the right? Or ALDE? Would the Liberals “hold their noses” and back such a conservative – and, what’s more, cement the EPP as tenants in virtual perpetuity of the three key presidencies (EC/EUCO/EP)? Many think three parties will need to coalesce around Weber.

Fifth, all of this depends on the outcome of general elections before or around May 2019 in Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and later in Greece, Poland and Portugal plus presidential elections in Latvia and Lithuania as well as Romania – and maybe re-run elections in Sweden or Germany…).

The FT’s Mehreen Khan said earlier this autumn: “But it’s Mr Juncker who may go down in history as the first and last Spitzenkandidat who made it to the top. A collector’s item”. One wouldn’t bet on that being true either. Fasten your seat-belts for a roller-coaster ride…


 [a1]Change based on whatever direction the chart is in relative to the text

David Gow is Senior Advisor & Consulting Editor at Acumen, and a journalist since 1968. Former German Correspondent, Industrial Editor and European Business Editor, The Guardian. Senior adviser CabinetDN 2009-17. Now: editor, Social Europe and sceptical.scot. 

 

 

 

If you need strategic advice or public affairs support ahead of the 2019 changeover, our team can help. Get in touch with us at info@acumen-publicaffairs.com

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