Jan Techau: Little Chance for Manfred Weber to Become President of the EU Commission
Editor's Note: Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program Jan Techau speaks to SWR2 on Manfred Weber and his chances of becoming the European Commission's next president.
SWR2: What will the fight for the European Commission presidency look like? On the one hand, heads of state and government have the right to pick the candidates. On the other hand, European Parliament groups insist that the presidency should go to one of their Spitzenkandidaten.
Jan Techau: This is a difficult question to answer because, on this occasion, the cards fell differently than five years ago. Back then, the parliament was firmly united behind the Spitzenkandidaten idea. There was a clear majority that could be formed by the conservatives—the EPP—and the social democrats. This time, it is different because the parliament is much more divided.
A majority is possible only if at least three—actually, four—bloc work together, and no longer just two. This weakens the parliament. Moreover, a relatively important player, the French president, has already said that he considers the Spitzenkandidat process to be unfortunate. He is an influential opponent. It is an open question as to whether the Spitzenkandidat system will be an automatic mechanism that works as it did five years ago.
SWR2: Can they—Macron and the other EU leaders—revert to backroom dealings? Especially since, throughout the electoral campaign, the Spitzenkandidaten promised less talk behind closed doors, more influence for the parliament, and they were rewarded with increased interest and a higher turnout by European voters.
Jan Techau: I would not say that such political bargaining will take place immediately, only because the Spitzenkandidat system is not taking hold. There are other ways to make things transparent. From the outset, the problem has been that the Spitzenkandidat process is not written in EU treaties. It essentially resulted from muscle-flexing by the parliament.
And now that the parliament is more divided it can no longer maintain this “handshake agreement.” Power grabs that cannot be reinforced with changes to treaty law are always shaky, and the parliament realizes that now.
The actual problem is therefore that the parliament is weakened and at the same time the EU leaders must not leave the impression that they are engaging in backroom dealing. And this will be a big balancing act. What is becoming clear is that if the conservatives, and their candidate Weber, want the top Commission job, they will have to pay a high price for it.
SWR2: I was just about going to talk about this. How do you see the chances of the Spitzenkandidaten of the main European political parties: Manfred Weber of the conservatives on the one side, and Frans Timmermans of the social democrats on the other? Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager of the liberals have already sent signals that they might well work together, as a coalition of the willing parties that are seeking change, in the words of Vestager. Which side, do you think, has better chances of getting a majority?
Jan Techau: I do not want to predict the future, but we can talk about the relevant persons. Of course, Weber has the advantage of presiding over the strongest political group, and so one would expect that he would make the most natural candidate. But, when there is no clear majority, this fact means relatively little. And finding a majority might be challenging for him since he is not well-appreciated by the EU heads of state and government. He kept washing his hands off the Orban issue, and so he is not seen as a strong leader. And the EU leaders do not consider him to be on equal footing with them, so to speak.
Timmermans is different. Timmermans has already been Vice-President of the Commission and his fellow social democrats gave a strong performance in the Netherlands. The liberal candidate Vestager is a commissioner and, one could say, somewhat of a winner of this election. This is because the liberals will have a stronger presence in the parliament than previously and, above all, Macron is on board with her.
There we have the three candidates who could all take the presidency, but whose present circumstances are very different. One should mention that possibility that all this could end up in a blind alley, so to speak. Then some other reserve candidates could be conjured out of thin air; for example, the Frenchman Barnier who has represented the EU in the Brexit negotiation, and who also has a very good reputation. There are also other candidates with no less of a chance.