Lukewarm support for Manfred Weber for top EU job

Leaders said to harbour doubts about Bavarian frontrunner to succeed Juncker

Manfred Weber, lead candidate of the European People’s Party in European parliamentary elections. Under the spitzenkandidat system, the candidate from the party with the largest vote is nominated as MEPs’ choice for commission president. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/Getty Images

Manfred Weber, lead candidate of the European People’s Party in European parliamentary elections. Under the spitzenkandidat system, the candidate from the party with the largest vote is nominated as MEPs’ choice for commission president. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/Getty Images

 

When EU leaders gather on Tuesday for a dinner and an election postmortem, the plat du jour will be how to fill the job of successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission for the next five years. Although the implication of Theresa May’s imminent departure is also likely now to be on the menu.

But the convening by European Council president Donald Tusk of the dinner at breakneck speed after the European Parliament elections is primarily about pre-empting attempts by MEPs to bounce the leaders into automatically accepting their preferred candidate.

He is likely to be the Bavarian “spitzenkandidat” of the centre-right European People’s Party, still predicted to be largest party in the parliament, albeit depleted. Under the spitzenkandidat system, the candidate from the party with the largest vote is nominated as MEPs’ choice for commission president.

But leaders at an informal summit last year insisted they do not accept “automaticity” and point to the treaty provision that the appointment is the sole autonomous prerogative of the leaders. Not, mark you, by unanimity, but by a qualified majority vote.

Asked at the EU summit in Sibiu recently about his preference, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar professed himself to be a loyal member of the EPP and therefore he would support its candidate Manfred Weber. He then grinned broadly and changed the subject, not inspiring confidence in his audience in that resolve.

Most public critic

French president Emmanuel Macron, contesting the elections in an alliance with the Liberals (ALDE– which includes Fianna Fáil), is the most public critic of the spitzenkandidat system and what he sees as parliamentary presumption.

In an interview this week with Belgium’s Le Soir, Macron made clear that he was not enamoured of Weber and spoke warmly of fellow Frenchman and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, also EPP.

Macron insists that the job should go to a candidate ‘with experience at the highest governmental level or European Commission level’

He “has great qualities”, the French president insisted, “and he demonstrated this once again in the way he handled negotiations with the British . . . one of the European leaders that have eminent qualities and can be on the list.”

Macron insists that the job should go to a candidate “with experience at the highest governmental level or European Commission level”. Weber has never served in government.

Tusk, effectively the leaders’ shop steward, is no fan of spitzenkandidat, and up to a dozen leaders are said to harbour doubts, including Luxembourg’s Xavier Betel and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has attacked Weber as “weak”.

Support for the Bavarian, even from his own party ally, chancellor Angela Merkel, has been lukewarm, and the EPP is no longer the power it once was in the European Council, any more than the parliament.

Among the 28 leaders, only nine are from the party, although it currently includes in its number the three leaders of the main EU institutions, the commission, council and parliament. An argument for rebalancing, some will say.

Left majority

The Socialists (S&D) are also not certain to back Weber with the votes he would need in parliament if they believe their candidate, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, star only on Friday of Labour’s resurgence in the Netherlands, has a real chance of building a left majority with backing from Greens, Liberals and the hard-left GUE group (including Sinn Féin).

The Netherlands’ Mark Rutte would be a shoo-in but is expected to insist he is needed at home

The leaders may also wish to consider the Liberals’ tough Danish competition, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, not least in the interests of gender balance. It would also possibly be a nod to both the substantial gains that the group is expected to make in the parliament and its indispensability to any new parliamentary majority.

Other Danish names being mentioned – though none has declared an interest yet – include former and current PMs Helle Thorning Schmidt (Socialist) and Lars Lokke Rasmussen (Liberal), and Swedish commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom. The Spanish also harbour ambitions for former EP president Josep Borrell (Soc).

The Netherlands’ Mark Rutte would be a shoo-in but is expected to insist he is needed at home.

Dark horse

And another dark horse may be Belgium’s PM Charles Michel (ALDE). If, as expected, Tusk suggests that the leaders look for a nominee from among their number at the table, Michel, seen as a safe pair of hands and an ally of Macron, is believed to be one who might be tempted to raise his hand. Varadkar is not expected – this time anyway – to express any interest in the job.

Barnier should not be ruled out, and it is clear that although whoever gets the job may affect the tone of the next phase of Brexit talks, their direction and mandates are closely monitored by the leaders themselves – no change should be expected.

Other big jobs, including Tusk’s own, are coming up, and the overall distribution by party, country and gender will be complicating factors on Tuesday night. And probably make it impossible for a decisive decision on the night . . . there’s another summit looming in a month, but the message to MEPs will be clear.