‘There is now a Farage in every country,’ Barnier says
European People’s Party backs Manfred Weber to become EU commission president
Manfred Weber, German head of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, after being chosen as the EPP’s candidate for the European Commission presidency. Photograph: Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg
The spectre of populism haunting Europe can only be removed if its centre-right political leaders “stand up on the barricades and defend our values, defend liberal democracy and the rule of law”, former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb told European People’s Party (EPP) delegates at their congress in Helsinki.
The congress, as expected, elected by a substantial majority the Bavarian leader of the EPP’s faction in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, as its candidate for the European Commission presidency to succeed Jean Claude Juncker next year.
He beat Mr Stubb by 492 to 117 votes to be named as spitzenkandidat, the party lead candidate who would be nominated to EU leaders as their choice for president if the EPP leads in the European elections next year.
But much of the focus of the congress was on the threat of populism. In a blistering denunciation of party colleague Viktor Orban in Hungary, to considerable applause, president of the European Council Donald Tusk said of those who attack liberal democracy, the rule of law and independent judiciaries, the rights of NGOs and the free press, that “you are not a Christian Democrat”.
“If you place the state and the nation against, or above, the freedom and dignity of the individual, you are not a Christian Democrat,” he said. “If you support Putin and attack Ukraine, if you are in favour of the aggressor and against the victim, you are not a Christian Democrat.”
Those were the “big” visionary themes, the internal and external threats to European values – some from their own party colleagues – that dominated leaders’ speeches on the second day of the congress of the former Christian Democrat party. They were determined attempts to pitch the party not as defenders of the status quo but almost revolutionary, the most consistent defenders of European and Christian values.
Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar was no less visionary than colleagues. It was the EPP, he said, which had “won the battle of ideas in the 20th century” against fascism and communism. It was up to our generation to ensure that memories of the tragedies of the first World War and and second were not allowed to fade.
“I believe we need more Europe, not less,” he said. “We must stand together or fall one by one.”
In a passionate appeal to take on populism and the forces that fuelled Brexit, Michel Barnier warned that “there is now a Farage in every country”.
“We will have to fight against those who want to demolish Europe with their fear, their populist deceit,” the EU chief Brexit negotiator said. “And their attacks against the European project. There is now a Farage in every country.”
On Brexit, Mr Varadkar thanked the party for its “unswerving” support and said that the big challenge was “to get it right”. That meant protecting the peace process and the Belfast Agreement. “We remain determined to avoid the emergence of a hard Border.”
He insisted that the future relationship with the UK must be “as close as possible” but the EU had to ensure a level playing field and “protect our single market”.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, who received a standing ovation acknowledging her decision to stand down as party leader, spoke of learning the lessons of the two great wars of the 20th century. “We know that nationalism will lead to war and the triumph of the doctrine that might is right,”she said.
She acknowledged that those wars had been nurtured on German soil and that “on my country’s shoulders sat a great responsibility to help steer the future of our continent to peace”.
The party’s response, she said, must lie in the Christian idea “that everyone is born to take responsibility for others”.
Mr Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, got a muted response to a measured speech, in which he restrained his anti-immigration and anti-Brussels rhetoric.
“Let us never trust those who build personal ambitions on dividing our EPP family with socialist and liberal ambitions,” he warned. “Let us get back to our spiritual roots, and let us proclaim the renaissance of Christian democracy.”