The next European Commission President: Manfred Weber reaches for the top job

On 7-8 November, the European People’s Party (EPP), a party in the European Parliament (EP), held its party congress in Helsinki. Since the EPP is the biggest party in the EP, Weber’s nomination matters as he has high chances to eventually become the Commission’s next President.

In the run-up to the European Elections in May 2019, the Congress was marked by the election of the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, who will compete with other parties’ nominees to become the President of the European Commission.

Within the centre-right party, two candidates, Manfred Weber, a German party politician and current Chair of the EPP in the European Parliament, and Alexander Stubb former Prime Minister of Finland and current Vice President of the European Investment Bank, had thrown their names in the ring.

The debate

The first widely-awaited highlight was the very first debate of two Spitzenkandidaten candidates on the evening of 7 November. However, everyone who expected a sharp exchange of words will have been disappointed.

Even though Stubb and Weber come from very different political backgrounds and differ on a number of core issues, the debate was a friendly exchange of views rather than lively confrontation.

Both participants praised Michel Barnier, the EU Chief Negotiator for Brexit, for his work and they emphasized that the UK made a mistake, leaving them worse off. Also, turning you back on the Union should not and does not come without a price.

A topic that was widely missed during the debate, and potentially one of the most interesting questions, was how to deal with Hungary. Weber was keen not to mention Hungary as this was considered the biggest danger to him becoming a Spitzenkandidat and eventually President of the European Commission. The relationship between Weber and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán changed throughout the last month. Originally being very close with each other, Weber began to distance himself when becoming a candidate. The concerns about Hungary’s fading respect for the rule of law let to the unprecedented triggering of the Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union procedure by the Commission, which will investigate the risk of Hungary to breach the EU’s core values. Weber voted in favour of triggering Art. 7.

The debate was perceived very differently between members of the wider EPP family and major news outlets. The latter did not consider it a proper debate, as they missed punches being thrown that would actually emphasize the differences between the two candidates. The EPP family, unsurprisingly, applauded the civilized exchange, calling it exactly what Europe needs. Whether or not one liked the debate or the candidates, it surely showed how far away the Spitzenkandidaten process remains from true primary campaigning.

The final pitch

On 8 November, the second day, the candidates gave their final pitches before the delegates’ vote for the EPP’s Spitzenkandidaten selection process closed.

Stubb in his speech talked about values, his vision for Europe and the vote the delegates were about to take. He did not go into the details of his campaign program but rather focused on demanding more integration and stronger commitment to the European Union from government leaders. He called upon the heads of government not to always blame Brussels for things that do not go well and take credit for policies that deliver.

Weber, for his part, turned more into campaign mode and took up his program about the people in Europe who should not be forgotten. During his speech, Weber emphasized that the core values of the European Union are Christian values and as a Christian he knows exactly what Europe is founded on. His statement that he needs no socialists or liberals to tell him what Europe is about came as a surprise as they were understood as being directedly addressed towards French President Emmanuel Macron’s new movement La République En Marche.

The Spitzenkandidat

As expected, Weber was elected the EEP’s Spitzenkandidat for the position of next President of the European Commission with 79,2% of the votes.

Regarding endorsements, Weber had outscored Stubb by far, securing support from all EPP leaders on the European Council. The election of Stubb would have been a major surprise.

The others

In the election of who becomes the next European Commission President, Weber now faces the candidates of the other parties in the European Parliament. The other Spitzenkandidat to have actual chances to become the Commission’s President is the current Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans from the Socialists & Democrats Party.

The European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) Group will endorse its only candidate Czech Member of European Parliament Jan Zahradil on Monday 12 November. The ECR Group although currently the third biggest in the European Parliament are likely to lose many seats in the elections in May, as the British Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party are members of it.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has not yet named potential candidates and is not sure they will, as they are critical of the Spitzenkandidaten process. Also, ALDE has been approached by Macron’s La République En Marche to form a liberal alliance and agree on a joint campaign platform. The discussions are still ongoing and the question whether La République En Marche would actually join ALDE or form its own group remains to be answered.