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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

German politician Manfred Weber placed in line top EU job

Centre-right alliance European People’s Party has chosen its potential 2019 successor to Jean-Claude Junker

The top candidate of the European People's Party (EPP), Manfred Weber (C) of Germany celebrates with his supporters after the result of the voting at the European People's Party (EPP) congress in Helsinki. (AFP)
The top candidate of the European People's Party (EPP), Manfred Weber (C) of Germany celebrates with his supporters after the result of the voting at the European People's Party (EPP) congress in Helsinki. (AFP)

Europe’s largest grouping nominated Manfred Weber on Thursday as its candidate for Commission president, a post currently held by Jean-Claude Junker.

The new German leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), who is seen as the embodiment of European-style coalition politics and conservative values, triumphed over rival former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.

Mr Weber received the endorsement of all of the EPP’s heads of national parties, including that of his mentor, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The campaign starts here in Helsinki," Mr Weber said. "We are bridge-builders, let's use this momentum. Then we will win in May 2019.”

Mr Weber was nominated with an overwhelming majority – 492 votes, 79 per cent of the votes cast – according to results announced by EPP President Joseph Daul at the group’s two-day congress in Helsinki.

The EPP is projected to retain control of the EU’s most influential job following the European Parliament elections in May 2019 but polls show it could lose more than a fifth of its seats.

Mr Weber, a 46-year-old civil engineer who still lives in his tiny Bavarian hometown, Wildenberg, is relatively new to the corridors of power in Brussels. Alongside being vice president of the CSU – the Bavarian sister party and coalition partner of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – Mr Weber has been chairman of the EPP group only since 2014.

He successfully turned his remarkably thin experience as EU operator into his best credential. “Today’s European Union is not connected to the people” he claimed when he announced his candidacy. “I want to re-establish the bond between the citizens and the European Union.”

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The two candidates produced two very different campaign videos that summed up their very distinctive personalities. Mr Weber, a more conservative and hardly electrifying character, talked about security and the need to protect the "European way of life" while taking a stroll in his Bavarian hometown.

“Europe was always my passion, but frankly coming home is really what makes me happy,” he is filmed saying.

Fifty-year-old Mr Stubb was thought of as the most media-savvy candidate and was seen as a more progressive choice. His slogan promised “the next generation of Europe” and his Twitter page featured until recently a photo of him showing off his biceps.

Following Thursday’s vote, Mr Weber is well-positioned to take Mr Junker’s seat. But the path from EPP nominee to the Commission’s Brussels headquarters may not be straightforward.

According to EU rules, the Council will propose a candidate for the job of Commission president and the Parliament will then have to decide whether to elect them. The Parliament is not bound to nominate a Spitzenkandidat – or the group leader – as the next Commission president.

As for now, the leaders of the EPP have succeeded in preventing discord over the nomination. Mr Weber and Mr Stubb engaged in a very civil debate Wednesday evening on an array of broad EU-related issues.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Mrs Merkel stressed the importance of a civil dialogue and of European unity. “In the elections next year we must speak well of each other,” she said. “If you speak badly about each other, you should not be surprised that people are no longer in favour of Europe.”

The Chancellor’s comments come as European institutions are increasingly under attack in Italy and Hungary.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is strong-arming Brussels over its fiscal budget, fired personal accusations of drunkenness and unreliability to the current Commission president, Mr Junker.

Speaking at the EPP congress on Thursday, Mr Junker said that “we need defend the values that are at the foundation of our union and of our party: human dignity, freedom, democracy, justice, solidarity and the rule of law.”

“Rule of law is not a poem. It is an every-day duty,” he added.

The EPP vote came amid tensions with Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose party is also a member of the European group.

Taking the stage, Mr Orban lashed out at the direction of the party. “We have to take the responsibility for not being able to keep the British in and the migrants out,” he said.

A vote by the European parliament to trigger a so-called “rule of law” procedure against the Hungarian government that could have led to sanctions against the state failed in September.