The German politician Manfred Weber is the current front-runner of the European People's Party (EPP), making him the most likely personality to become the next Commission president. So who is Manfred Weber, and what does his candidacy mean for EU politics?
Whenever there is a presidential election, people are generally aware of the front-runners. You could hardly imagine a German election without people knowing who Martin Schulz is, a French election with people ignorant of Marine Le Pen, or a British election without anyone being aware of Jeremy Corbyn. In this case, Manfred Weber is not only the front-runner for the largest party in the political EU institutions; he also runs "unopposed" by practical terms. If Weber is chosen by the EPP congress (a likely scenario, as he currently benefits from the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and because he would be the first German to lead the EU's executive since 1967) he would run against his European contenders. But even the Social Democrats, who currently constitute the second largest bloc in the European Parliament, are still miles away from overtaking the centre-right.
However, there is little awareness of who Manfred Weber actually is. Weber replaced Joseph Daul (EPP-France) as the head of the EPP parliamentary group in 2014. His election was a concession to the German Christian-Social Union (CSU), Angela Merkel's coalition partner in the current government and an important player in the current debates surrounding immigration. The CSU only operates in the federal state of Bavaria and has considerable power in German politics. In recent years, it has made a harsher turn to the conservative right, causing a ruckus in the current coalition. With Weber as a moderate and conciliatory voice, the attempt was to assuage the upset. But the fact that he is hardly known in Brussels, and even less so in Europe, damages the "Spitzenkandidaten" system.
The Commission president is officially chosen by the European Council (so, the head of state or government of the member states), but since 2014, the EU has employed the so-called "Spitzenkandidaten" system. Under this rule, the political group that receives the most seats in the European Parliament gets to send their nominee to the presidential post. This is how the incumbent president Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP-Luxembourg) was chosen after the European elections in 2014. However, member states have never really been fond of this agreement, and France and Italy are currently opposing it openly.
If the system were to be maintained (which, considering the elections are already scheduled for May, is inevitable) and Weber "elected" to the Commission post, then the European Union would only see itself in a deeper crisis regarding its political legitimacy and recognition by the electorate in the member states.
Manfred Weber has been a loyal Merkel follower in that he doesn't really take positions. The brilliance of this particular political strategy seems to work well, as the Bavarian politician worked himself from the abyss of the unknown to front-runner of the most important post in the European Union. It should be noted that Manfred Weber never held political office in Germany. He entered the European Parliament in 2004.
Weber's stance is generally based around the philosophy of uniting the party--not through new politics, but through conciliatory rhetoric. This was uniquely well demonstrated by the vote on the triggering of Article 7 in the European Parliament this week. Weber, without taking a real position on the question of Hungarian breach of the Copenhagen Criteria, allowed the EPP group for a free vote, meaning that all MEPs are free of group considerations for their vote. His speech in the plenary was ambiguous and left people asking what his actual position is. In the end, the parliament overwhelmingly voted to trigger an Article 7 procedure.
On the question of the Macedonian name dispute with Greece, Weber refers to EPP member Nea Dimokratia, who maintains that negotiations should be ended. Greece could veto the accession of Macedonia, because it believes that Macedonia is cultural heritage that the former Yugoslav Republic should not rip off. By referring to its Greek member party, Weber avoids having to talk about the issue. As Euractiv reported last week, the EPP primary candidate acted as though he had not heard a question by a journalist asking about this issue.
Both the French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian immigration minister Matteo Salvini (who has crystallised as the actual leader in current Italian politics) are opposing the Spitzenkandidaten system and are also not fond of Manfred Weber as a candidate. Weber's Bavarian CSU party background could serve to block Macron's progressive EU reform plans, and his status quo position hinders the anti-immigration rhetoric of Salvini. While it is unlikely that the process in itself will be stopped until the end of the elections, Macron and Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte could gather support in the Council to oppose the eventual appointment of Weber. In that case, a political crisis could erupt in Brussels in which Macron's centrist alliance would fight more eurosceptic forces in Italy and Central Europe.
The interesting take-away from Manfred Weber's candidacy is therefore that he isn't polarising in of himself--he is, in fact, as boring as a politician can get--but that his candidacy will lead to major divisions within the union.
Pictures are Creative Commons.