Who can stop Manfred Weber? After this weekend’s elections, the centre-right Spitzenkandidat is expected to be standing in one of Brussels’ most coveted and exposed positions: at the front of the queue to be European Commission president.
Unless there is a big election upset, the Bavarian will be the first to lay claim to the commission post, having led the European People’s party to victory as the biggest group in the European Parliament.
Yet some European capitals still struggle to take him seriously. The 46-year-old, a top-to-toe product of the parliament, is attempting an unprecedented feat in Brussels. He would not only be the first German president in half a century, but the first with no executive experience at any level of a national government.
His rivals are circling, waiting for Mr Weber to stumble. One senior EU diplomat likened his candidacy to a Bauernopfer, a pawn sacrificed for advantage in a longer chess game. But for that to be the case, somebody must move to knock out Mr Weber.
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How and when this will happen is far from clear. When EU leaders gather to discuss nominees on Tuesday, in Mr Weber’s favour will be factors that helped propel Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency in 2014 as an EPP Spitzenkandidat: first-mover advantage, inertia and the shield of democratic legitimacy.
“It is not an issue of who the leaders want,” said one veteran of the 2014 race who remains closely involved in the latest process. “It is whether they want to block someone [who is frontrunner]. Who is going to spend political capital to get rid of him?”
The group leaders
First and foremost, Mr Weber’s political strength comes from the European Parliament, which has a veto on the choice of commission president. It also means his biggest vulnerability may be discord among parliament’s political groups.
On Monday night, in the post-election aftermath, the Bavarian plans to convene the leaders of the main pro-EU political families: the Socialists, liberals and Greens. Mr Weber wants parliament to be clear it will not back any candidate “who did not show up to campaign”.
The aim is to forge a common front on the Spitzenkandidat idea, and seize the initiative from EU leaders, much as Mr Juncker and his Socialist rival Martin Schulz managed in 2014.
Five years on, conditions are less favourable. Parliament will be more divided and may struggle to rally a choice of its own. The EPP’s strength is also waning. “It may be too complicated to pull off again,” said one senior parliament figure.
Crucially, Guy Verhofstadt’s Liberal group has cooled on the Spitzenkandidat principle — and its votes will be essential for any majority.
The incentives for the centre-left are also less clear cut. Rather than crown Mr Weber as the winner, Frans Timmermans, the Socialist candidate, is keen to muster the numbers for a progressive majority that relies less on the EPP. The Greens may also see advantage in holding out to extract more policy pledges.
There is little doubt as to who is Mr Weber’s most lethal opponent. French president Emmanuel Macron is unmoved by the Bavarian, unimpressed by the Spitzenkandidat system and developing a taste for being obstructive at EU summits. He has been clear that he does not “feel bound” to any lead candidate in the election.
For these reasons, the anti-Spitzenkandidat camp are banking on a French knockout blow, potentially as soon as Tuesday. Senior French officials say if there is an attempt at a coup d’état by the parliament — where the groups agree to back Mr Weber — the response will be especially strong. “This will be a moment of truth for the European Council,” the official said.
While Mr Juncker was appointed in the teeth of outright opposition from David Cameron, the UK prime minister, overriding a French president in such a way remains taboo in Brussels.
“The commission has to enforce the EU’s rules, which often means facing down prime ministers,” said Heather Grabbe, a former EU official now at the Open Society European Policy Institute. “It’s much harder to do this if its own president is appointed over the objections of major heads of state.”
The dilemma for Mr Macron is more tactical. Would it be better to leave the bother of confronting Mr Weber to somebody else? Waiting could help France’s bargaining power in negotiations over the whole package of EU jobs that are due to be allocated, including the presidency of the European Central Bank.
As European Council president, Mr Tusk is responsible for brokering the compromises over jobs, consulting with parliament to ensure the commission nominee is viable. He is no fan of the Spitzenkandidat concept and is calling on other candidates to come forward so that the European Council is not presented with a fait accompli by parliament.
Some European capitals hope Mr Tusk acts as a convener for anti-Weber opposition, channelling some of his self-described “hooligan” spirit as a youth, where his crew would “roam the streets” of Gdansk “cruising for a bruising”.
This could include, for instance, Mr Tusk engineering Tuesday’s summit to make clear there is a blocking minority of EU leaders who are opposed to Mr Weber and other lead candidates from the election.
Senior EU officials say up to a dozen leaders harbour serious concerns. The liberal party family, including Mr Macron and Xavier Betel of Luxembourg, have spoken out publicly about the system, arguing for more genuinely transnational elections. Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Viktor Orban of Hungary have, meanwhile, attacked Mr Weber himself. The EPP, Mr Weber’s party supporters, accounts for only nine out of 28 seats around the summit table.
The German chancellor carries the scars of a Spitzenkandidat battle. After showing indifference to Mr Juncker’s candidacy following the 2014 election, the uproar in German media and within the EPP forced her to do a rapid about-turn, clinching the commission for the Luxembourger.
Ms Merkel is still sceptical about the Spitzenkandidat model, which potentially narrows the field of candidates, and hardly effusive about Mr Weber. But she has campaigned with him and put on record her support for his candidacy, making clear it is part of the EPP statute.
She is expected to stand with Mr Weber. But veterans of past job negotiations with the German chancellor say she may “get someone else to deliver the message” if the Bavarian’s prospects look doomed. This could be sweetened by job offers elsewhere in the EU or German political system.
EU leaders are aiming to decide on the main jobs at a summit in mid-June, but senior EU figures are doubtful that the process will be quick or painless. “This will not be easy,” said one. “This is a power game, and [the candidates] will hang on in to get as much as they can out of it.”