Manfred Weber vs. Frans Timmermans: the Berlaymont race begins

Wednesday 21 November 2018

The Juncker Commission, appointed in 2014, will be replaced in November 2019 following the European elections that will take place in May. These elections will determine the composition of the European Parliament and the first parliamentary political group may then propose to the European Council a candidate as next President of the European Commission (the Spitzenkandidat, ie the "candidate at the summit"), although the European Council is not legally obliged to approve him. At the moment, the two favorites at the post are German Manfred Weber and Dutchman Frans Timmermans.


The two most represented political groups of the European Parliament have both nominated their Spitzenkandidat for the elections. These are Manfred Weber for the European People's Party (EPP) and Frans Timmermans for the Party of European Socialists (PES). The group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) meanwhile nominated the Czech MEP Jan Zahradil while the other formations have not yet determined their candidate. His chances seem slim compared to the two favorites in the polls. The article focuses on these two candidates in the race for the presidency of the European Commission, whose mandate will begin in November 2019 and end in 2024.

 

Manfred Weber: the conservative trying to gather

The latest polling survey carried out by Reuters confirms the number one place of the EPP in the next European elections and therefore the possible victory of the candidacy of Manfred Weber.[1] The German MEP got the support of his party at the congress held in Helsinki on November 8th 2018. Formerly member of the Bavarian Parliament, this Christian-Democrat became MEP in the 2004 elections. He commits to the creation of 5 million jobs through trade agreements, a strengthened single market and an "ambitious" cohesion policy at European level. Security is also a hobbyhorse for this former soldier: he advocates the creation of 10,000 additional agents for Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to secure the EU's external borders, and proposes to repatriate illegal immigrants to their countries of origin.[2]

In the Berlaymont race, M. Weber has the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The question of maintaining the controversial Fidesz party in the EPP has so far been avoided by Manfred Weber, who is trying  to rally behind him as much support as possible in order to make his nomination inevitable in the event of the EPP victory at the European elections. He does not hide a certain confidence: "I cannot imagine that someone at the European Council says after the election "I do not care about the result of the European elections"”. However, it should be mentioned that President Macron (among others) could oppose the idea of a German president of the European Commission, according to Professor Steven Van Hecke, Professor at the University of Leuven.[3] Indeed, rumors persist about Michel Barnier's appointment in the event of the EPP's victory for his management of the UK's exit negotiations from the EU.

 

Frans Timmermans: the social democrat who says no to nationalism

"We will have a Social Democrat for the first time in fifteen years as the leader of the European Commission.”[4] It is in a spirit of confidence that Frans Timmermans approaches the Berlaymont race, a place he knows well from his current position as Vice-President of the European Commission. Previously, he was a diplomat and also Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, before joining the Juncker Commission in 2014. Rather than criticizing Manfred Weber, his direct and most serious competitor, he is particularly worried about the "threat" of nationalism in Europe.[5] This is why he considers the European elections of next May as the most important ones since 1979, the year of the first election of Members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage. For Sergei Stanishev, President of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Frans Timmermans is a strong candidate who "represents a change of direction for Europe, and will put social justice, equality and sustainable development at the heart of our electoral program."[6]

 

Experienced candidates who will have to convince governments

Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans have been very involved in European affairs for many years. Unlike the EPP candidate, M. Timmermans can claim a fairly long experience in an Executive branch both at National and EU level. On the other hand, the Socialist candidate will have little chance to win the favor of governments such as Poland and Hungary, that he has sharply criticized for policies that he considers harmful to the rule of law.

The composition of the next European Parliament will be decisive for the race to the Berlaymont. As Juuso Järviniemi, editor-in-chief of The New Federalist, explains: "If a majority of MEPs are involved in the Spitzenkandidaten procedure and are ready to force the hand of the European Council, there will be ultimately few alternatives to the appointment of a Spitzenkandidat as President of the Commission.”[7] That is to say that the two candidates have an interest in their political party obtaining a majority of seats in the hemicycle and in having the least possible number of deputies elected opposing to the Spitzenkandidat procedure, such as the "pro-Macron"[8] candidates who would support the French president's desire to opt for a candidate who is not necessarily affiliated with one of the classic parties. The name of the one who will go up in the presidential suite of the Berlaymont thus remains very uncertain.



[1] Center-right set to remain top in EU parliament: poll analysis : https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-election-polls/center-right-set-to-remain-top-in-eu-parliament-poll-analysis-idUSKCN1ND2LM

[2] See ideas of Manfred Weber : https://weber.epp.eu/my_ideas

[3] « Weber wins EPP Spitzenkandidat in landslide victory » : https://www.euractiv.com/section/eu-elections-2019/news/weber-wins-epp-spitzenkandidat-in-landslide-victory/

[4] Timmermans confident he will become the next Commission president : https://www.neweurope.eu/article/timmermans-confident-he-will-become-the-next-commission-president/

[5] Timmermans: EU election is battle for soul of Europe : https://www.politico.eu/article/commissioner-frans-timmermans-eu-election-is-battle-for-soul-of-europe-parliament-election/

[6] UE: Frans Timmermans seul candidat socialiste pour la succession de Juncker : https://www.la-croix.com/Monde/UE-Frans-Timmermans-seul-candidat-socialiste-succession-Juncker-2018-11-05-1300980987

[7] Spitzenkandidaten : une comparaison entre Manfred Weber et Frans Timmermans : https://www.taurillon.org/spitzenkandidaten-une-comparaison-entre-manfred-weber-et-frans-timmermans

[8] Un mouvement pro-Macron émerge au Parlement européen : https://www.ouest-france.fr/politique/emmanuel-macron/un-mouvement-pro-macron-emerge-au-parlement-europeen-5440134

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