Merkel defends Weber’s run for European Commission president
At a summit dinner in Brussels on Tuesday for EU leaders, with no mobile phone signal or aides present, the German chancellor made her most vigorous defence yet of Manfred Weber, the lead candidate for the centre-right European People’s party.
Ms Merkel has become increasingly dismayed at French president Emmanuel Macron’s thinly veiled criticisms of the Bavarian, whom he sees as lacking experience in national government.
She pointedly reminded leaders that she was dismissed by her critics for the same reasons before taking office more than 14 years ago, according to officials briefed on the dinner. “I would warn and caution against telling the parliament that those who only acquire experience in the parliament are not experienced people,” she said after the meeting. “That’s not a path we should go down.”
Her unusually strong intervention in support of Mr Weber, the so-called Spitzenkandidat of the conservative group that emerged with the most seats in Sunday’s European Parliament elections, is a significant early move in a month-long battle to select a new crop of presidents for the EU’s top institutions.
Ms Merkel has long held doubts about the Spitzenkandidat system and is under political pressure in Germany and from within the EPP to champion Mr Weber more enthusiastically.
Her stance now puts her publicly at odds with the French president in what could become a fraught battle for EU power and influence.
EU leaders gave Donald Tusk, the European Council president, a mandate to consult with the European Parliament over coming weeks, with the aim of agreeing a package of jobs next month. This includes the presidents of the commission, European Central Bank and European Council.
Mr Tusk said that while there was no guarantee that a Spitzenkandidat would ultimately be chosen by the European Council, he acknowledged that having campaigned in the election “may increase their chances”.
Mr Macron arrived at the summit vigorously pushing rival candidates to Mr Weber. He covered almost the full range of pro-EU parties, suggesting Michel Barnier, the Frenchman who is the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Margrethe Vestager, the Danish liberal who oversees EU antitrust enforcement, and Frans Timmermans, the Dutchman who is the lead candidate of Europe’s Socialists.
“We need strong leaders, with strong experience and legitimacy,” Mr Macron said after the dinner, adding that he did not believe in choosing as heads of the commission or the council people put there “because they cast no shadow over national leaders”.
With the conservatives and the socialists no longer holding a joint majority in the European Parliament, the French president is determined to make his liberal alliance into kingmakers when it comes to the main EU posts.
Ms Merkel said it was “no secret” that Mr Macron was opposed to the Spitzenkandidat system but noted the EPP remained the “biggest party in parliament”. “We all have to live with the circumstances that present themselves,” she said. Some diplomats at the summit speculated that Mr Macron was throwing out support for various candidates in a push to kill off Mr Weber’s chances.
Berlin has told other capitals that knocking out Mr Weber would immediately end France’s hopes of placing one of its nationals at the top of the commission or the ECB. Mr Macron spent the past two days assiduously courting different factions within the European Council.
He saw the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez twice, indicating he would be willing to join him in backing Mr Timmermans. Later in the day, the French president met central and eastern European leaders, urging them to join his campaign against Mr Weber and offering Mr Barnier as an alternative, according to diplomats familiar with the conversation.
European leaders and officials agree on the need for a balance between political forces and geographical regions in their choice of candidates, and most now say they want to move towards gender parity as well.
“The new order means one thing: It’s that we cannot just repeat the old habits,” Mr Macron said, adding that it was important “to name two men and two women” for the top EU posts.
Alex Barker, Victor Mallet and Michael Peel in Brussels