Held in Berlin, the European People’s Party (EPP) bureau meeting was unusually tense this year as the European Parliament’s largest political party risks losing control of the EU’s largest state, Germany.
The EPP is in control of 179 out of 705 seats in the EU parliament. It overtook the social democrats in the 1999 EU parliament elections to become the largest single group, while conservative candidate Angela Merkel won the 2005 general elections Germany, opening a golden age for the EPP at EU level.
But the EPP are now at a critical juncture: their German backers, the CDU/CSU coalition, are facing historically low polling figures ahead of the 26 September general elections in Germany.
If those numbers are confirmed after the election, the EPP risks losing Germany as an implicit ally in the European Council, which brings together the EU’s 27 heads of states and governments.
The EPP bureau meeting in Berlin had originally been intended to serve as a forum for internal debate on issues such as strengthening parliaments, the future of Christian democracy, the future of Europe debate and a European defence strategy
It was also meant to offer a platform to celebrate Angela Merkel, the departing German Chancellor and long-time EPP ally.
But instead, the meeting became a forum to support Armin Laschet, the German conservative chancellor hopeful running on behalf of the CDU party.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz was probably the strongest defender of Laschet. “Europe cannot afford a total failure of Germany,” he tweeted following his attendance to the EPP bureau, on 9 September.
Kurz warned that a leftist German government would allow migrants into Central Europe and a government without the conservatives would endanger the Stability and Growth Pact, the EU’s fiscal rulebook, which Merkel defended during the euro zone crisis.
Manfred Weber, the EPP’s group leader in the European Parliament, also offered his support to Laschet, more strongly than his party leader in Bavaria Markus Söder had done, saying that CDU candidate was a “convinced, passionate and ambitious European” and that he was needed as chancellor.
EU parliament presidency scuffle ahead?
As the meeting kicked off on 8 September, EPP chairman Manfred Weber also announced that he would not assume the presidency of the EU parliament on behalf of the EPP.
The EPP and the social democrats (S&D) are the two largest political groups in the European Parliament and generally share the parliament presidency in two half-terms.
The Italian social democrat David Sassoli has held the presidency since the beginning of 2019, but is now said to be gathering support for a second-half term, as he was unable to properly exercise his office due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While a conservative Germany would be an important ally in the fight for the Parliament’s presidency, a German social democrat government could put its weight behind Sassoli.
As some in Brussels had previously voiced their concern over two Germans holding both the Commission presidency and the EU parliament presidency simultaneously, Weber may have opted to take himself out of the running to weaken the position of the social democrats.
Manfred Weber, who had been dropped by Angela Merkel in the face of stark opposition over who would replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the European Commission, was initially promised the EU parliament presidency as a consolation prize of sorts.
Weber himself is now aiming to hold the two EPP top jobs in a historic first: chairman of the party family in the parliament and its presidency, currently held by Donald Tusk.
Hybrid-attacks on Lithuania
The EPP congress also served as an opportunity for the conservative prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė, to gather some support as her country continues to face a tense situation at its border with Belarus.
Šimonytė said that more than 3000 primarily Iraqi migrants had entered the country via its borders with Belarus already, in what she continues to refer to as “hybrid attacks”.
“The situation is frozen,” she added, noting that the EU’s leverage had helped the situation plateau.
Lithuania is an important staging ground for Belarusian opposition forces, credited Laschet her country’s efforts.
While attending the meeting in Berlin, Šimonytė went in for bilateral meetings with conservative powerhouse Manfred Weber, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and chancellor hopeful Armin Laschet, according to information obtained by EURACTIV.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]