The European People’s Party (EPP) nominated Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday (7 March) as its candidate to lead the EU election campaign and become the next president of the European Commission.
Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, will lead the EPP’s pan-European elections campaign following a vote by party affiliates at the party’s congress in Dublin.
The former Luxembourg premier won 382 votes against 245 for his rival, the French EU commissioner Michel Barnier, in what the party called “A historic moment”. 629 out of 812 delegates had cast their ballot.
Juncker addressed the crowd in Dublin, saying “I’m very proud to be the top candidate for this marvelous European People’s Party.” He will be the EPP’s candidate to lead the Commission for five years in case the centre-right wins the largest number of seats in the European Parliament elections on 22-25 May.
“On 25 May, we will celebrate a victory, all together. We will win these elections,” he told party delegates in Dublin.
Joseph Daul, president of the EPP, said: “In the coming weeks, our candidate will explain our project – we’ll also need you [the national party delegations] to do this. 25 May will again be the date that the EPP will take the lead as biggest party in Europe.”
“We will catch up with Mr Schulz and the socialists very soon”, Juncker said, referring to the short lead enjoyed by the leftists in the latest opinion polls.
Juncker confirms his lead
The centre-right party’s electoral congress was organised in Dublin on Thursday and Friday (6-7 March). 812 party delegates were allowed to cast their vote for the EPP’s common candidate. The German delegation is the largest, with 101 votes, followed by the Italian delegation (79 votes) and the French and Polish (both 68 votes).
Juncker was considered the frontrunner in the race, as German chancellor Merkel had endorsed him in early February. The Luxembourger also got the endorsements of the third horse in the race, Valdis Dombrovskis, who withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday (5 March) in favour of Juncker.
His rival Michel Barnier had the endorsement of his own UMP party of France, the Hungarian Fidesz party, and the Slovenian NSi party.
Closer than expected
While Juncker clearly appeared to be in pole position, the vote ended up closer than expected. On Friday morning, Barnier’s campaigners were busy rallying votes before the polls opened. Both candidates also got the chance to convince delegates with campaign speeches.
“In this difficult period [of economic crisis], we have been the party of responsibility. We have taken the difficult decisions that really mattered,” Barnier told the audience. “I believe we can propose a new horizon to the people of Europe. We need to deepen the eurozone; consolidate the single currency and single market.”
“Today, Europe needs a vision and – if you want – I think I can help deliver this,” Barnier added.
Juncker relied on his experience to convince the EPP members, outlining his long experience of EU affairs and national politics.
“There are more than 5 million unemployed in Europe. Our first job is to give them hope,” he stated. “Europe needs to focus on the important, social questions.”
“I offer my experience, my determination and my enthusiasm,” Juncker said, before winning the vote to serve as candidate to succeed José Manuel Barroso at the head of the EU executive.
No more back-room decisions?
After the Greens, the EPP was the second party to stage a leadership contest. The Greens organised an online vote for their sympathisers, from November to January.
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, was the only contender for the socialist party’s top spot. And in the liberals’ race, EU commissioner Olli Rehn agreed to a compromise to let Guy Verhofstadt campaign as frontrunner.
The initiative has been a topic of discussion amongst EU pundits for months now. The treaty of Lisbon empowered the European Parliament to elect the next president of the European Commission, and requires the European heads of state to “take into account” the results of the elections when nominating him or her.
Political parties took the initiative to nominate their candidates within their own parties. The idea was to give a face to the campaigns, they argued, and would overcome the traditional backroom deals between EU heads of state on who leads the EU institutions. But EU heads of state haven’t always been keen on endorsing the parties’ initiative.
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Enda Kenny, Taoiseach (PM) of Ireland, told EURACTIV that he will accept the candidate put forward by the largest party, after the election. “People decide all over Europe and out of that we have our list of candidates,” he said. “I don’t speak for the Council, but obviously when there is a process of selecting the candidates, then that is what follows.”
“If we want to be serious about this – be credible about this – we should stick to the candidates we have now,” Valdis Dombrovskis, former Latvian prime minister and contender for the EPP top spot until Wednesday (5 March), stressed to EURACTIV.
Start of pan-European campaigning
With some ten weeks to go before EU citizens cast their votes on 22 to 25 May, the top candidates for the main European parties will start campaigning across Europe.
According to Alexander Stubb, Finnish minister for European Affairs, this could boost voters’ interest in the nation states: “When this candidate comes to Finland, I’m sure most people will know him,” he told EURACTIV.
“This is what politics is about,” said Stubb. “For the first time we have these top candidates traveling around Europe, campaigning. They might not incite as much emotion as national politicians will do, but they’ll be well received.”
Televised debates in preparation
The contenders will face each other directly at several occasions in the coming weeks. The European Broadcast Union (EBU) is organising a debate on 15 May; more debates are likely to be held on 28 April and other dates.
The two leading contenders for the European Commission presidency could even debate each other in a face-off, just days before the elections – though parties are divided over having such a ‘showdown’.
Speaking to EURACTIV, Jean-Claude Juncker said he envisions “at least two debates” between the two top candidates, which he called “very interesting discussions”. Observers have stressed the need to invite debaters from the right to raise the stakes. But Juncker dismissed such ideas, saying “I have enough debates with the main candidates. And I haven’t received any invitations [to face right-wing candidates] so far.”