Juncker wins Dombrovskis backing as EPP congress kicks off

  
Delegates of the European People's Party at the electoral congress in Dublin, March 2014 [EPP]
Delegates of the European People's Party at the electoral congress in Dublin, March 2014 [EPP]

The European People’s Party’s campaign is now a two-horse race, with Latvian contender Valdis Dombrovskis announcing he was dropping out Wednesday (5 March). As the EPP’s electoral congress in Dublin gains pace, Jean-Claude Juncker is slated to become its candidate for the EU Commission presidency.

Juncker speaks about his candidancy for EU's top job

In a surprise move, Valdis Dombrovskis announced on Wednesday evening (5 March) that he was withdrawing from the three-man race to become the centre-right candidate for the European Commission presidency.

“To achieve the best results, the EPP must unite its efforts to support Jean-Claude Juncker's candidacy to [the European Commission] president's post,” Dombrovskis stated on twitter on Thursday morning.

Dombrovskis's defection turns the EPP campaign into a two-horse race between former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, and the French EU commissioner Michel Barnier. With the Dombrovskis endorsement, and unofficial backing from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Juncker now appears firmly in the lead.

But Barnier hasn't given up, and is pursuing an energetic lobbying campaign, according to several participants at the Dublin congress. The French commissioner has the endorsement of his own party, the French UMP, as well as two other parties.

“I was approached by quite a lot of people asking about my choice," said Alojz Peterle, former president of Slovenia and MEP for the Slovene Christian Democrats party (NSi), which endorsed Barnier. "I’m not sure that all delegates are determined already – there is still time to change minds,” he told EurActiv.

“Barnier was the only one who approached my party, and he won our support,” Peterle said, “but I’m mostly pleased that the EPP has two strong candidates.”

Party gets behind process

The idea of having European parties’ put forward candidates for the election was initially resisted, most notably by centre-right political heavyweights like Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy.

But now that the party is on the verge of electing its own candidate, these doubts seem to have faded. German chancellor Merkel endorsed Juncker for the position in February, suggesting she has come to terms with the initiative.

“It is clear: our single candidate is the designate contender for the European Commission presidency,” party president Joseph Daul stressed to party delegates in Dublin. “That is our position, and we’ll communicate this position to the EU heads of states after the elections.

“If the candidates are elected here, and gets elected again by the European Parliament [after the elections], this is in the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty,” Peterle stressed.

Changing plans as EU leaders meet in Brussels

The congress serves as the kick-off of the EPP’s campaign ahead of next May’s European elections. Delegates of the EPP member parties in Dublin will adopt a common manifesto later today at their plenary session. The Ukrainian delegation at the congress includes politicians Yulia Tymoshenko and Vitali Klitschko, who are set to address party members at the plenary this afternoon.

But the congress is on the back burner, as EU heads of state are still in Brussels for an extraordinary European Council meeting to discuss a way out of the Ukraine crisis.

>> Follow the European Council live on our Storify page

Centre-right EU leaders will arrive in Dublin this evening and meet with party leaders to discuss the situation in Ukraine. This includes German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, whose Fine Gael party is hosting the congress.

Some have speculated that EU leaders would also force Barnier to pull out of the race for the frontrunner position, leaving Juncker unopposed. But a source told EurActiv that "Barnier was still lobbying for votes until very recently - I don't think he will pull out."

The member parties' delegates cast their ballots on who will be the EPP’s common candidate tomorrow morning. The party is set to unite behind its candidate as the result is announced at 1pm local time.

The party is the last one to select its common candidate and adopt its manifesto. The Socialist PES party held an electoral congress in Rome last week (28 February-1 March); the European Greens gathered in Brussels two weeks ago (21-23 February) and the liberal ALDE has selected Guy Verhofstadt as candidate at their last full-scale meeting on 1 February. 

Timeline: 
  • 6 March: First day of the EPP electoral congress in Dublin: adoption of the campaign manifesto and EPP Summit of heads and state and party leaders on the situation in Ukraine.
  • 7 March: Second day of the EPP electoral congress: election of the party's common candidate for the EU Commission presidency.
  • 22-25 May: EU elections in all 28 member states.
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