THE European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right block in EU politics, this afternoon elected Manfred Weber its lead candidate for next May’s European election, by a margin of 79% to 21%. Under a precedent established at the last election, in 2014, the “Spitzenkandidat” (as the role is sometimes called, using its original German version) of the largest group in the European Parliament has an unofficial mandate to become president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive. The EPP is the largest group and is likely to remain it next year, so Mr Weber—a softly-spoken, folksy Bavarian from the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), a partner of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union—is now the clear frontrunner.
That is a missed opportunity. Mr Weber is a down-to-earth type and a pro-European moderate within the CSU. As the EPP’s leader in the European Parliament, he knows Brussels and its institutions and is a deft deal-broker and compromise-finder. But the point of the Spitzenkandidat process is to lend the European election—still more like a series of simultaneous national contests than a unified continental one—an EU-wide dimension. It is also to strengthen the link between citizens and the Commission. Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister who ran against Mr Weber for the candidacy, would have been better suited to those tasks. He is a more multilingual, charismatic and persuasive figure than the technocratic Bavarian. But the latter’s close link to power-brokers in Brussels and national capitals, including Mrs Merkel, won the day. Speaking off-the-record to your correspondent in Helsinki, some EPP staffers (even German ones) expressed disappointment at the missed opportunity to rejuvenate European politics.
The ideological gap between the two men is modest and both played it down in a “debate” (more of a panel discussion) yesterday. But it is not insignificant. Mr Weber has long attracted criticism for his reluctance to stand up to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic prime minister, whose Fidesz party remains, scandalously, a member of the EPP. Mr Stubb lacks this baggage and is a more instinctive social and economic liberal. As lead candidate and perhaps Commission president he would have made a more natural partner to Emmanuel Macron, France’s centrist president. Mr Weber represents more continuity with Jean-Claude Juncker, the current Commission president and the first to be selected under the Spitzenkandidat process.
With today’s vote the contours of the contest, such as it is, for the Commission presidency are clearer. The centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the second largest group in the Parliament, have just one remaining contender to be their lead candidate: Frans Timmermans, the avuncular Dutch vice-president of the Commission. ALDE, the liberals, gather in Madrid tomorrow where prospective candidates will start throwing their hats into the ring ahead of a selection in February (party sources say a two-person candidacy is a possibility). A putative new group built around Mr Macron’s En Marche!, which may form an alliance with ALDE, is yet to set out its plans, but is not keen on a rigid Spitzenkandidat process.
The contest is not as simple as it looks at first sight. There is nothing automatic about the “winning” candidate’s path to the Berlaymont building, the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels. That choice still lies in the hands of heads of government, many of whom are still sceptical about the Spitzenkandidat logic. In 2014 Mrs Merkel was persuaded to accept it only by a prolonged campaign by influential Germans in Brussels and, especially, the powerful Bild tabloid. Some in Brussels wonder whether the chancellor would privately like to lever a German with more gravitas than Mr Weber, perhaps Peter Altmaier, her loyal economics minister, into the job. Moreover, the leaders’ choice must secure a majority in the European Parliament. The EPP will probably lose seats in May’s election. So will the S&D, with which it has traditionally cut majority-commanding deals divvying up the EU’s big jobs. Together the two may lose their joint majority. That, combined with Mr Weber’s conservatism by western European standards (if not within his own CSU), makes his backing by a centrist majority in the Parliament questionable.
In that respect, today’s choice may have opened another door. By selecting Mr Weber over the more widely appealing Mr Stubb, the EPP may have laid the foundations of a rejection for its “winning” candidate when he goes before the next Parliament. Then the search would be on for an alternative figure acceptable to governments and a majority of MPs spanning several different political families. Alternative EPP contenders like Mr Stubb, Mr Altmaier, Michel Barnier (the Commission’s Brexit negotiator, whose wide-ranging speech in Helsinki today sounded like an application for the presidency) and Ursula von der Leyen (the German defence minister) could all be compromise candidates. Each has strengths. But most intriguing—and from a reformist perspective, promising—is an idea doing the round in backrooms of the EPP conference: the selection of a non-EPP figure acceptable to S&D, ALDE, Macroniste and perhaps even Green MEPs. If Magrethe Vestager, the dynamic Danish competition commissioner who is taking on American tech giants and whose fans include the French president, secures the ALDE lead candidacy, she would be a prime contender for this role. Her election would be a welcome step for European renewal. She may announce her bid as early as tomorrow.
Absolutely none of this is certain. These are unpredictable times: Europe’s centre is fragmenting and, in parts of the continent, weakening. There is no consensus around how forcefully the Spitzenkandidat logic should dictate the choice of new Commission president. The EPP itself is a fragile alliance, stretching from internationalist liberalism to illiberal nationalism. The dividing up of jobs in Brussels after the May election will involve all the usual horse-trading: a big job for the EPP will come at the price of a big job for the S&D and perhaps one too for the ALDE-Macroniste alliance, especially if it overtakes the centre-left and comes second. There will need to be something for the EU’s north and its south, its east and the west. There will be a gesture, albeit half-hearted, towards a gender balance. Other posts in the mix will include the presidencies of the Council and the Parliament and, beyond the EU institutions, the top jobs at the European Central Bank and NATO.
To predict the outcome of this churning would be folly, especially in times of such flux and fragmentation in European politics. But in the balance of probabilities, the prospects of a fresh and decisive hand on the Commission’s tiller did not necessarily diminish in Helsinki today. And in a continent where Mrs Merkel is on her way, Mr Macron is in a funk and anti-EU forces are on the march, that is just as well.