Weber forced to stand aside as EU leaders bypass Spitzenkandidaten

European Commission presidency candidate, German Manfred Weber of the European People's Party (EPP) gives a press conference after an EPP group meeting to elect the group vice-chairs, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 05 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The EPP’s lead candidate for the European Commission Presidency, Manfred Weber, was forced to step down from his bidding for the post on Tuesday (2 July), as it became clear he could not obtain sufficient support from EU member states.

The news came as German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, was nominated as Commission President by EU leaders. Her nomination must now be approved by the European Parliament.

In addition, rumours persisted on Tuesday evening that Weber, who won the EPP’s nomination for the EU’s top job by a landslide 80-20 ratio over his rival Alexander Stubb earlier this year, could also struggle to get the support of MEPs in order to be voted in as European Parliament President.

Nominations for the first round of voting for the Presidency of the Parliament, which takes place tomorrow morning, close at 10pm this evening.

European Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday that it was the “political intention” of EU leaders to have a Socialist Parliament President for the first half of the 5-year term, and an EPP President for the second half. Tusk added that the Spitzenkandidaten process was never a “legal obligation” for EU leaders to follow, but that heads of state attempted to “respect” the votes of European citizens.

EURACTIV understands that the Socialist candidate currently in the running for the Parliament post is Bulgarian MEP and President of the Party of European Socialists, Sergei Stanishev.

Stanishev, a former Bulgarian prime minister, was understood to be jockeying for the role on Tuesday and group sources revealed that they would not be satisfied with Weber taking the Parliament Presidency.

His fellow Socialist party colleagues, unhappy about the sidelining of Frans Timmermans, were said not to be united behind the idea of Stanishev, saying he would “divide the centre-left”, while MEPs from the Baltics and other Eastern European countries pointed out his past as a former Russian citizen.

Stanishev also faced criticism recently after a PR firm led by Stanishev’s wife, Monika Stanisheva, won a €60,000 contract for a project to the European elections in Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, at the European Council summit in Brussels, alongside von der Leyen’s nomination for the Commission presidency, outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was presented as the next European Council President and former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell put forward as the High Representative on foreign affairs. IMF chief Christine Lagarde has been nominated to replace Mario Draghi as the President of the European Central Bank.

Weber’s campaign suffered a major setback when the Visegrad Four member states all came out against the German’s bid for the Commission top job, citing the need for a set of ‘fundamental principles’ including the need for tougher controls on immigration as well as the preservation of ‘Christian values’ in Europe. The V4 leaders believe that such principles could be in jeopardy should Weber obtain the most influential job in the EU.

On Tuesday, the EPP group reaffirmed their opposition to Timmermans as the next Commission President, an idea previously floated by Merkel.

An EPP source told EURACTIV that the group was unambiguous in their backing for an EPP Commission President during group talks on Monday afternoon and opposition against Timmermans. However, the source made no specific mention of Weber being the EPP’s number-one choice for the post.

“The EPP won the elections and should have the first choice in the posts,” the source said. “Zero votes will go for Timmermans from the EPP group.”

Should Weber seek to obtain the European Parliament Presidency position, in order to enter the running for the first round of voting that takes place on Wednesday morning, he would need to submit his candidacy by 10pm this evening. A source close to Weber told EURACTIV that his office is “not confirming anything” for the time being.

KU Leuven professor and EPP-expert Steven Van Hecke told EURACTIV that he would rather see Weber take up a post in the European Commission, rather than the European Parliament “because the latter is much less political.”

However, Van Hecke also revealed that the priority for EPP members was ensuring that a member of their group obtains the Commission Presidency, rather than Weber himself obtaining the role.

Speaking of EPP members in the European Parliament, he said: “They seem to stick to the same line: first Weber as Commission President and if not Weber than someone else from the EPP; all the rest is less important.”

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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