Merkel Ally Gets Nod to Run for EU Commission Presidency

(Bloomberg) -- Europe’s Christian Democrats picked Manfred Weber of Germany to run for European Commission president as they seek to fight off a populist surge, keep the region’s top job in their hands and uphold free trade.

Weber, a European Union lawmaker and an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was selected by the party as its candidate to lead the EU’s executive arm for five years starting in November 2019. He defeated former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb for the nomination in a secret ballot in Helsinki on Thursday.

The choice by the EU’s biggest political family, a traditional backer of open markets, sets the stage for a contest among Weber and candidates from other European parties to succeed commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The outcome will depend on how well the parties do in May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, which approves the commission chief, and on how willing national government leaders are to cede power over an appointment they have traditionally determined in a back-room deal.

“I am a bridge-builder,” Weber told hundreds of members of the EU’s Christian Democrats, also known as the European People’s Party, at a conference in the Finnish capital. “That is part of my political DNA.”

Europe’s main political families are seeking to replicate national parliamentary democracy by nominating candidates for chief of the Brussels-based commission and letting the parties with the best results in EU legislative elections lay claim to the post. The EU Parliament, which faces a May 23-26 ballot, oversees the commission in addition to endorsing its leadership team.

While the non-binding system was used for the first time in 2014, the verdict is out on whether it’ll survive, especially in an era of insurgent anti-establishment forces. It’s dubbed “Spitzenkandidat” after the German term for lead candidate.

Weber, head of the Christian Democrats in the EU Parliament, will face contenders from other parties including the Socialists’ Frans Timmermans, a Dutch native who is currently the commission’s principal vice president.

In his final pitch for party votes in Helsinki, Weber lashed out at anti-EU politicians for what he said were unjustified claims that people must choose between loyalty to their countries and to Europe.

He pointed the finger at Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and French far-right politician Marine Le Pen and borrowed a line from a late leader of his southern German region of Bavaria.

“Bavaria is my home, Germany is my nation and Europe is my future,” said Weber, 46. “And I don’t allow any of these nationalists and egoists to create a split between these identities.’’

In a message meant to help lure back European right-of-center voters who have abandoned the Christian Democrats for more nationalist parties since the 2015 refugee crisis, he vowed to take a tough stance on Middle Eastern and African migrants seeking to enter Europe for a better life.

“The EPP must be the party of strict border control,” Weber said. “Illegal migration has to be stopped.”

For the past 14 years the Christian Democrats have filled the post of president of the commission, which proposes and enforces EU laws on everything from car emissions to mobile-roaming fees. It also monitors national economies, negotiates trade deals, runs a diplomatic service, manages the bloc’s budget and acts as Europe’s competition authority.

The result of the contest within the Christian Democrats for the Spitzenkandidat nomination was never seriously in doubt because Weber secured the support of at least 19 national member parties before the Helsinki gathering. In the end, he won almost 80 percent of the 619 valid votes cast.

Stubb, 50, appeared to concede defeat even before the announcement of the outcome. Taking on Merkel’s countryman was “a little bit like Germany playing against Finland in football,” the Helsinki-born Stubb told the conference as voting was getting underway.

“I wish it was ice hockey,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.