Centre-right parties set to nominate Merkel ally as head of Commission

More than 2,000 participants from 41 countries are at the European People’s Party congress, including some from Fine Gael, led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

At its party congress in Helsinki, the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is affiliated, saw a final debate, chaired by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, for the nomination between runaway favourite, pragmatic MEP Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP in the European Parliament (left), and former Finnish PM, Alexander Stubb (right). Photograph:  Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva / AFP

At its party congress in Helsinki, the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is affiliated, saw a final debate, chaired by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, for the nomination between runaway favourite, pragmatic MEP Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP in the European Parliament (left), and former Finnish PM, Alexander Stubb (right). Photograph: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva / AFP

 

Europe’s centre-right is set on Thursday to nominate a Bavarian ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel as its nominee to head up the next European Commission.

At its party congress in Helsinki, the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is affiliated, saw a final debate, chaired by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, for the nomination between runaway favourite, pragmatic MEP Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP in the European Parliament, and former Finnish PM, Alexander Stubb.

With a confidence that the reflected the EPP’s lead in the field, both men were upbeat, insisting that a united Europe has a bright future and that the challenges to multilateralism internationally and of populism within the union were opportunities.

Both also put much emphasis on strengthening rule-of-law mechanisms within the union in response to events in Poland and Hungary. “We cannot argue for rule of law principles on a global level if we don’t respect them internally,” Weber said.

On Brexit, Weber insisted that he could not vote for a withdrawal deal in the European Parliament “if nothing happens at the end of March . . . if we don’t show the difference between membership and non-membership – the Brits will lose some of the advantages of this strong market.”

Stubb said everything about Brexit was “crap”. He put particular emphasis on Europe leading the digital revolution and he attacked French President Emmanuel Macron for dividing Europe between those who were good Europeans and the rest.

The European People’s Party is the largest political group in Europe. The presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the Parliament are EPP members, as are eight EU heads of state and government and 14 members of the European Commission.

More than 2,000 participants from 41 countries are at the congress, with some 734 delegates with voting rights – 13 of them from Fine Gael, led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The congress is dominated by two issues – the election of a party nominee for Commission President to take part in the spitzenkandidat process in May’s European Parliament elections, and the party’s embarrassment at continued membership of populist, far-right rogue leaders such as Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi.

Nominees for spitzenkandidat will not actually contest the election but will be proposed by the party with the largest vote to European leaders as the next president of the Commission. Whether they will choose to accept the nomination is not yet certain, but MEPs have promised to make any subsequent ratification in parliament conditional on their candidate getting the nod.

The EPP is in lead position with some 219 seats in the outgoing chamber of 751. So Manfred Weber, who is almost certain to become the party candidate today, is the frontrunner to succeed Jean Claude Juncker.

Weber has been endorsed by all of the EPP’s current heads of state and governments, and most of its national member parties.

The two candidates are split on how to deal with Orbán – Weber favouring dialogue, while Stubb, now member of the Court of Auditors, would expel him.

Not surprisingly the former has secured Orbán’s backing.

“Every family has an enfant terrible,” EPP president Joseph Daul said when asked whether the autocratic Hungarian premier should be expelled. “But as I am Christian democrat, I prefer to keep my enfant terrible inside the family and to be able to talk and reason with him.”

The congress did, however, debate and agree an anti-populist resolution which stresses support for liberal democracy, the importance of rule of law, an independent media, a vibrant civil society, strong EU institutions, independence of the judiciary, and EU monitoring of member states’ compliance with fundamental values.

Strangely, diplomatically, it does not mention Hungary or its leader.