A leading member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance, Manfred Weber, was chosen to head the center-right ticket in the European Parliament's elections next May. This puts him in line to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission – maybe.
But the procedure of awarding the top EU job to the leading vote-getter in European elections is on wobbly footing. It has been used only once before, with Juncker’s selection in 2014.
Many national leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, are not convinced it is the best way to choose the commission president. They would prefer to juggle appointments to that post along with all the others. Doing this could achieve the right balance – between northern and southern members, big and little countries, and center-right and center-left parties.
Weber, who is the floor leader of the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, easily won the backing of his colleagues to head the ticket for the grouping, the largest in the legislative body. He won 79.4 percent of the vote at a special EPP congress in Helsinki. Juncker headed the ticket in 2014 and was duly appointed commission president after the party bagged the most votes.
The procedure even brought the German word Spitzenkandidat into English usage, as a way to designate the standard-bearer for each grouping. So far, only the Party of European Socialists, which includes Germany’s Social Democrats, has agreed on Dutchman Frans Timmermans as Spitzenkandidat.
But it is not even certain that many other parliamentary groupings will put up a Spitzenkandidat next year. Amid the political fragmentation in Europe, new far-right, far-left and hard-to-define forces are coming into play.
Italy’s eurosceptic Five Star Movement, for instance, which many consider left-leaning, belongs to the same group as the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage, who no one would consider leftist. The other radical party in Italy’s ruling coalition, the League, belongs to the far-right grouping along with French National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Greece’s ruling Syriza party is in the marginal far-left grouping.
Macron, for instance, is thought to favor EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who belongs to the Liberal grouping that includes Germany’s Free Democrats, for the commission post.
Weber, a member of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has spent virtually his entire career in the European Parliament and has led the EPP since 2014.
This could work against him for the commission post because he has no experience in government. Juncker, for instance, was prime minister of Luxembourg for 18 years, whereas Weber has never even had a cabinet post.
Also, Weber is virtually unknown outside of Bavaria and Brussels. Besides his native German, he speaks only English. Neither language will help him as he campaigns in the 27 remaining EU countries taking part in the May vote.
Even Martin Schulz, the longtime president of the European Parliament, had a higher profile when he became the Spitzenkandidat for the Socialist grouping in the 2014 elections.
No national leader has endorsed Weber – not even Merkel, who was in Helsinki on Thursday to give him a hug on stage when he accepted the nomination to be Spitzenkandidat.
Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. Eva Fischer is a reporter in the Brussels bureau. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]