Wilfried Martens’ hospitalisation opens EPP leadership succession race

Wilfried Martens.jpg

After Wilfried Martens, the long-serving president of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), was admitted to hospital, discrete talks have began about his succession despite his expected recovery, EURACTIV has learned.

Martens, 77, was admitted to hospital on 31 August for blood clotting problems, the Belgian press reported. The former prime minister of Belgium is said to suffer consequences for heavy surgery he underwent 30 years ago.

He has made his last public appearance on 21 July, during the swearing in ceremony of the new Belgian king, Philippe.

Martens co-founded the European People’s Party (EPP) in 1976 and has been its president since 1992. In spite of his age, his leadership has not been challenged so far, although sources say more and more of his work has been done lately by EPP Secretary General Antonio López-Istúriz, a Spanish politician and MEP. López-Istúriz is 43.

Javier Jimenez, an EPP spokesperson, told EURACTIV that Martens' replacement was not being considered for now. EURACTIV understands that the EPP President had planned to stay in office for the 2014 European elections, and that his eventual successor had not been prepared.

The EPP does not lack potential replacements, however. To assist Martens, the party has two vice presidents ex-officio (Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Council President Herman Van Rompuy), two honorary Presidents (Former Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans and the current President of Finland Sauli Niinistö), as well as nine elected Vice Presidents, of which two are members of the European Commission (Antonio Tajani and Michel Barnier) [see EPP organigram]

Martens' replacement is likely to be a senior politician from a country where the EPP is in a strong position, EURACTIV was told. This automatically excludes countries such as Italy or France, and gives an advantage to Poland, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Latvia.

Germany is also expected to obtain good results in the coming elections, but its huge economic weight might disqualify it from pursuing top political positions at European level.

A natural candidate for the job is Jerzy Buzek, the Polish former president of the European Parliament, who is generally seen as having performed well during his 2009-2012 stint. But Warsaw might have bigger ambitions, for the posts of Commission president or EU foreign affairs chief, which become available next year. The EPP top job is seen as of minor importance by comparison.

Former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar is also seen as a potential candidate. Such an option would however require Secretary General Antonio López-Istúriz to step down, as it is would be politically inappropriate for two Spaniards to hold the party's reins.

Leadership race open in other parties

The other two big political families are also beginning the political season with questions over their leadership.

The president of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Sergei Stanishev, is busy with problems in his home country, Bulgaria, and PES Secretary General Achim Post is largely taking his duties, EURACTIV was told. Stanishev, who is also leader of the Bulgarian Socialist party, is struggling to keep order over a minority coalition government which has a record low level of public support.

The leader of the liberal ALDE party, Sir Graham Watson, appears unchallenged. But he risks not retaining his MEP seat in the 2014 European elections, due to the surge in popularity of the anti-European UKIP party in Britain.

And the leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, was recently caught by surprise with the declared intention of Commission Vice President Olli Rehn to head the ALDE group’s list at the European elections next year, thus declaring his intention to be their candidate for the Commission top job.

Verhofstadt is seen as the natural candidate to lead the ALDE list at the European election and while he has not reacted publically, the news of Rehn’s candidacy was considered a challenge. Neil Corlett, spokesperson for the ALDE Group, told EURACTIV that candidates to succeed José Manuel Barroso at the Commission will be discussed at a pre-summit meeting of ALDE leaders on the margins of the 19-20 December EU summit.

If two or more candidates emerge, an internal party vote will be held in early spring, Corlett said.

President Martens will remain for a few days in the Erasmus hospital in Brussels for observation, but as soon as he leaves the hospital, he will return to his normal activity, the EPP said in a statement.

Martens’ responsibilities and tasks have been temporarily delegated as follows: the responsibility of chairing the Presidency meeting is delegated to Vice President Peter Hintze (CDU, Germany) and the Political Assembly meeting to Vice President Jacek Saryusz-Wolski (Civic Platform, Poland). 

The meetings of the Presidency and the Political Assembly will review the programme for the 6-7 March 2014 Congress in Dublin, where the EPP will kick-off its campaign for European elections. The application of the Ukrainian party UDAR for observer membership of the EPP will also be discussed in the presence of UDAR President Vitali Klitschko. 

The European People's Party (EPP) group is the largest in the European Parliament, with 274 elected MEPs.

Outside Parliament, the EPP currently has over 70 member-parties in 40 EU and non-EU countries. Its leaders are President Wilfried Martens and Secretary-General Antonio López-Istúriz. The EPP presidency has 18 members (more).

However, the EPP is the only major political family without a sister party in one of the largest EU countries, the UK.

The EPP’s political assembly defines the political positions of the party between each congress, held every three years.

The EPP holds summits prior to European Council summits. These sessions offer EPP leaders an informal and confidential setting to air their differences and seek consensus within the EPP family in an effort to develop common positions at the European Council.

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