Europe’s political leaders began manoeuvring to secure the EU’s top jobs after this weekend’s European Parliament elections with a clash looming over the candidacy of Manfred Weber whose centre-right emerged as the biggest group.
The centrist party of French president Emmanuel Macron on Monday called for “a European Commission President candidate that can build a robust majority way beyond the partisan lines” — suggesting it wanted an alternative to the Bavarian MEP. Pascal Canfin, the number two on Mr Macron’s party list, said Mr Weber was “totally disqualified today”.
But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the head of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union, said Sunday’s election had strengthened Mr Weber’s claim to the post.
Mr Macron has invited Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, to dinner at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Monday night as negotiations accelerate over who to back for president of the European Commission. Mr Macron will also meet other European leaders over lunch in Brussels on Tuesday before an informal EU summit in the evening, the Elysée said.
Mr Macron’s La République en Marche was narrowly beaten into second place by the far-right National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen, but it enters the European Parliament for the first time with more than 20 seats and expects to be at the forefront of a liberal grouping that will shape the choices to head the agenda-setting commission, the European Council of heads of state, the European Central Bank and the parliament itself.
More on the 2019 European elections
ALDE, the pan-European liberal group with which Mr Macron is aligned, is aiming to play a kingmaker role after the centre-left socialists and Mr Weber’s European People’s party lost their combined majority in parliament. The liberals do not agree with Mr Weber’s argument that as the leader of the biggest group he has first claim on the job.
In a joint statement, Mr Macron’s party and ALDE said: “At this hour, no candidate for the presidency of the Commission has secured a majority in the European Parliament. We would be extremely vigilant about any attempt to bypass the necessary negotiations between the democratically elected stakeholders, as it would be extremely harmful to the transparency and accountability of the European democratic process.”
“The new balance of power in the European Parliament calls for a Commission President candidate that can build a robust majority way beyond the partisan lines. Our new group will be open to consider all candidates that can gather the support of the political families that will compose the future governing majority.”
However, Mr Weber received strong backing from Berlin.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said her party’s goal in the election was to be the strongest German contingent and to give Mr Weber a “tailwind” from Berlin “so it’s clear that he’s our lead candidate and he is our man for European Commission president. And we have achieved this goal.”
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said the CDU had backed the Spitzenkandidat system, whereby the lead candidate from the winning group becomes parliament’s choice for commission president, from the start.
“And if the results confirm that the EPP is the strongest group in the European Parliament, then that should reinforce Manfred Weber’s claim to leadership of the European Commission,” she said.
She added that the CDU would not hesitate to back the German government in “supporting Manfred Weber in Brussels”.
But if the CDU party leader has given Mr Weber her full backing, Chancellor Angela Merkel has not commented on his candidacy since Sunday night’s elections results.
Mr Macron has already met Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and another liberal, and António Costa, Portugal’s centre-left leader, in Paris in recent weeks. He called Ms Merkel on Sunday night and will meet prime ministers from the Visegrad group — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — on Tuesday.
Matteo Salvini, Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the hard-right League which won the electionsin Italy with 34 per cent of the vote, said he was now eyeing a senior post for an Italian in the commission.
“We [Italy] are going to ask for an economics commissioner, not a philosophy commissioner: trade, agriculture or competition. And as the League we will have an extra chance to have an extra voice,” he said.
Additional reporting by Miles Johnson in Rome