BRUSSELS (AFP) – Divided over how to handle ties to Hungary’s populist prime minister and facing a future without their figurehead Angela Merkel, Europe’s centre-right parties gather this week to seek a leader.
More than 700 delegates from across the continent will attend the European People’s Party (EPP) conference in Helsinki this week and on Thursday (Nov 8) vote to choose a standard-bearer.
The lucky candidate – either Finland’s former premier Alexander Stubb or, more likely, German MEP Manfred Weber – will lead the European Parliament’s largest group into May’s election.
If the EPP remains the biggest coalition in the Strasbourg chamber after the vote, the party’s election leader, or “Spitzenkandidat”, could then become president of the European Commission.
The current president, former Luxembourg leader Jean-Claude Juncker, is an EPP veteran, and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel will wield great influence over the choice of his successor.
But a final decision on the post will only emerge from horse-trading between the union’s 27 national leaders. The 28th, Britain’s Theresa May, will have led her country out of the bloc at the end of March.
And many of those, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, are known to oppose the automatic selection of a Spitzenkandidat.
So whatever the result of the May 26 election, it will trigger a round of political intrigue in Brussels and Europe’s capitals, and the EPP will play a major role in deciding who gets the top jobs.
But first the group – a diverse alliance of conservatives, Christian democrats and populist authoritarians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban – will have to decide who will be their public face.
Will it be Mr Weber: a 46-year-old provincial business consultant turned consummate EU insider, a member of the CDU, the Bavarian little brother to Dr Merkel’s declining but still powerful German CDU.
Or will it be the ever-smiling Mr Stubb of Finland’s liberal conservative Kokoomus, a 50-year-old media-friendly former head of government with a lively Twitter account and a passion for elite endurance sports.
Mr Weber, who has Dr Merkel’s endorsement, is the clear favourite.
In addition to his fellow German’s backing, Mr Weber can count on Austria’s right-wing Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Hungary’s nationalist Orban to rally their supporters to his cause.
Mr Stubb hasn’t got such backing, but this has made him the candidate of those who think the EPP should reject Mr Orban’s Fidesz and its increasing anti-EU rhetoric and authoritarian tactics.
“Weber has every chance of winning because he is assured not only of the German delegates – at 88 the biggest contingent – but he is capable of managing the EPP’s divisions,” said Ms Christine Verger of European think tank the Jacques Delors Institute.
Mr Stubb’s outsider role, as a member of the EPP’s small liberal faction, gives him room to articulate the party’s concerns about any alliance with the hardliners and populists that threaten European unity.
But he knows he has little chance of becoming Spitzenkandidat.
“It’s a bit like Finland playing Germany at football,” he joked in an interview with Germany daily the Suddeutsche Zeitung.
But Mr Weber may find the post-election parliamentary arithmetic more complicated than it was for his predecessor.
Just as Dr Merkel’s grand coalition of the centre-right and centre-left has lost ground in Germany, mainstream conservatives and socialists are facing a populist tide across Europe.
After Brexit, there will be no more British Labour MEPs in the main Socialist and Democrats coalition in Strasbourg, and no more Tories in the European Conservatives and Reformists group.
Meanwhile, Mr Macron’s new French centrist movement is expected to bolster the ranks of the liberal ALDE group, giving it a voice at the table when it comes to appointing an EU president.
“The two large traditional groups will probably lose their 55 per cent majority and will have to build coalitions,” Ms Verger said.
The EPP flag-bearer will then no longer be in pole position for the top job, perhaps leaving space for a liberal outsider like Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner.
The 758 delegates gather in Helsinki on Wednesday and vote on Thursday.
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