Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, announced on Wednesday (5 September) his candidature for the European Commission presidency on behalf of the centre-right party. But the kick-off event left reporters displeased, who were not allowed to ask questions in English.
The Bavarian politician from the Christian Social Union (CSU), who has so far held no governmental post in Germany, said he had been formally nominated by his national party to be the EPP candidate for the top job. Chancellor Angela Merkel also backed Weber, despite speculation that her support was rather lukewarm.
“Europe is at a turning point and next May, EU people will decide about the future of this continent. And again, the people will decide,” Weber said, hinting that the Spitzenkandidaten process should be followed, something that the French government opposes.
The German conservative politician noted that the EU faces challenges from outside and inside, from radicals and anti-Europeans and “those who don’t believe in the idea of partnership”.
He emphasised that Europe needs a new plan to save the euro and defend its values.
“Yes, I am ready to face these challenges,” Weber said. “I believe I can help kickstart a new era for Europe. This is so urgently needed as we cannot go on as we are doing now.”
Weber announced his candidature at a press conference in the Parliament but before starting his speech, his assistant said Weber would not take questions from scores of journalists who were invited for the event.
Following pressure from reporters, he replied to one question in English and then only spoke to German media, prompting an angry reaction from many EU-accredited journalists from other countries.
EURACTIV asked Weber for a comment on the ongoing discussion about the high number of Germans in top EU posts, but he declined to reply.
Macedonia name dispute
Considering that the next Commission will deal with the critical issue of Western Balkans enlargement, EURACTIV also asked Weber to clarify his position about the recent name deal between Athens and Skopje.
Weber pretended he did not hear the question.
The issue is indeed tricky. Speaking to EURACTIV in January, EPP leader Joseph Daul hailed the “window of opportunity” to resolve the long-standing name dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
The statement of the EPP chief was in contrast with the position of Greek EPP member New Democracy, which said that the negotiations should stop.
After the Syriza-led leftist government accused New Democracy of being internationally isolated, Weber stepped in by saying he “fully trusted New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis”, avoiding taking a position on the name dispute issue.
‘He must make a clear choice’
In the past, Weber has strongly criticised democracy failures in several EU national governments that are not controlled by the EPP. But he has been careful not to harm Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party is a member of the EPP.
In a conciliatory effort, Weber said on Wednesday that Europeans needed to stay united. “We cannot allow so many splits inside the EU.”
“There is no Europe of East and West or rich and poor, there is no Europe of large of small countries, there is only one EU. I want to bring together the interests, to build up bridges.”
In the meantime, Ska Keller, a German MEP and president of the Greens/EFA group in the Parliament, issued a statement urging Weber to prove his EU credentials.
“Next week is the moment that Weber and the rest of the EPP must take a clear stance and show that they believe in a European Union of democracy and the rule of law by voting to sanction Hungary for breaching these values, which we should all hold dear,” Keller said.
Keller added that sadly enough, Viktor Orbán is no longer alone within the EPP adopting the rhetoric and the positions of the national-populist far right.
“The largest European political group, which Manfred Weber currently leads, must make a clear choice between that and sticking to the values enshrined in the EU treaties, which state that the EU is founded on the values of freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights,” she emphasised.
Wer Kommissionspräsident werden will, muss #Europa’s Werte verteidigen. Das kann @ManfredWeber gleich nächste Woche bei der Abstimmung zu #Ungarn beweisen. “Wie hälst du’s mit #Orban?” @EPP https://t.co/ZOCXFB9lch
— Ska Keller (@SkaKeller) September 5, 2018
Next Tuesday the European Parliament will hold a debate on a proposal to trigger Article 7 against Hungary. A vote will be held in plenary the next day, after Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech. If two-thirds of the MEPs vote in favour of triggering Article 7, the Council will be able to take the decision by a four-fifths majority.
The two-thirds majority largely depends on the EPP’s position.