Weber Will Need His Own Selmayr to Win the EPP prize
There was no great surprise in yesterday’s announcement by Manfred Weber that he will run to be the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat for next year’s elections, following the much-publicized endorsement from Angela Merkel. His candidacy starts the long campaign towards who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker in July 2019 and there are some early lessons to take from the response to his announcement.
- Don’t underestimate the Brussels press corps: Weber’s campaign got off to a shaky start when he was roundly criticized by the Brussels press corps for not taking questions and then only responding to German reporters. As part of the Brussels bubble, he will be heavily scrutinized and needs to become more press savvy. His failure to take questions is odd given how open he is during his monthly press conference in Strasbourg, which he usually conducts in English.
- Who will be his Selmayr? the badly managed press conference illustrates how important it is to have a strong campaign manager. Juncker’s campaign was famously controlled by Martin Selmayr and Weber will need similar support. He’s likely to turn to his current spokesman, Christian Huegel, a constant presence by his side rather than his current head of cabinet, Mercedes Alvargonzalez. His new advisor Udo Zolleis could also be influential. If Weber, or any German candidate, was to finally replace Juncker, that could spell the end of the Selmayr era as Secretary-General of the Commission on the grounds of excessive German influence.
- Advantage of being first out of the blocks: Weber’s announcement came on the opening day of nominations for EPP candidates. That gives him an advantage as the early starter, with support already coming in from key backers. He will hope that the level of support from across the party will deter other possible candidates who are currently sounding out party members. EPP leaders are due to discuss the merits of the candidates on 18 October before the EPP political assembly reviews them on 6 November and the Helsinki Congress makes its decision on 8 November – a full month before the S&D choose their candidate and 3 months before ALDE. Surprisingly, the “euro-realist” ECR group (under their European umbrella of ACRE) may be the first to appoint their Spitzenkandidat at a Congress in Brussels on 18 October, where Czech MEP Jan Zahradil is the front runner.
- He’s the conservative candidate: Weber is a Bavarian CSU career politician who will appeal to the conservative hard core of his party, in the mould of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Other potential EPP candidates will need to appeal to a broader base. Much speculation revolves around Alexander Stubb, especially since his fellow Finn, Jyrki Katainen dropped out of the race. Stubb is a young (50), athletic (ironman) politician who in contrast to Weber boasts national and EU political experience having served as an MEP (2004-2008), Foreign & European Minister (2008-2014), Prime Minister (2014-2015), Finance Minister (2015-2016) and currently VP of the EIB. He would appeal to the centre of the party but his strong pro-EU stance could distance him from parties like Fidesz in Hungary. The fact the election will take place in Helsinki can only help his cause. The relative youthfulness of Weber and Stubb only highlights the generation issue that will count against a possible pitch by Michel Barnier, before even taking in the problems he would have of campaigning in the midst of delicate Brexit negotiations and the need to win Macron’s backing.
- Is he too close to Orban? Weber’s struggle to keep Orban’s party Fidesz in the EPP was again apparent yesterday when he spoke of his role as bridge building and avoiding east/west splits. His position on Orban will be put to the test next week when the Parliament votes on whether to start article 7 proceedings against Hungary – a vote that will require EPP support.
- He can campaign without retiring: Weber has the in-built advantage that he can campaign for both the EPP nomination and then the Commission presidency without having to resign from his current job. Other potential contenders like Peter Altmaier would be reluctant to stand down with no guarantee of a job at the end. There is still a view that Altmaier could be a compromise candidate for Commission President at the very end of the process.