Merkel Ally Seeking Top EU Job Says Populists Unfit to Govern

(Bloomberg) -- The front-runner to lead the European Union’s executive arm warned that euroskeptics like Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini have no real answer to the bloc’s challenges.

Manfred Weber, the candidate of Europe’s Christian Democrats to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president in November, said international issues ranging from migration and terrorism to climate change and innovation are beyond the ability of anti-EU parties to address.

“They are totally incapable of providing a real EU solution,” Weber said in an interview on Tuesday in Athens, where he kicked-off the hot phase of his campaign linked to European Parliament elections 30 days away. “The only policy they have is to try to block things.”

The remarks highlight an effort by Europe’s mainstream political families to expose the limitations of populist parties amid the U.K.’s struggle to deliver Brexit and tensions within Italy’s ruling coalition.

Weber, a 46-year-old ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Salvini’s League party, the National Rally of France’s Marine Le Pen and the far-right Alternative for Germany are plagued by fundamental disagreements among themselves. He also questioned Salvini’s ability to manage the Italian economy.

“I don’t think that he is doing a good job in Italy because Italy is economically extremely weak,” Weber said.

The Italian government is forecasting virtually no growth in 2019 and a budget deficit of 2.4 percent of gross domestic product this year instead of 2.04 percent agreed with the rest of the EU at the end of 2018.

Weber’s comments also reveal a determination by Europe’s Christian Democrats, a traditional backer of open markets, to retain the top commission post they have held for the past 15 years. The party is projected to remain the biggest group in the EU Parliament after the May 23-26 ballot.

The contest to succeed Luxembourg’s Juncker will depend on the EU-wide elections to the 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.

Weber, the Christian Democratic floor leader in the EU Parliament, would be the first German since Walter Hallstein in the 1950s and 1960s to lead the Brussels-based commission and would represent its first head who wasn’t a national government leader since France’s Jacques Delors in the 1980s and 1990s.

Weber said he chose Greece to start the intensive part of his election campaign because the country is the home of democracy and the contest among candidates from various European political alliances to lead the commission represents an attempt to make the governance of Europe more democratic. The Socialist contender for Juncker’s job is Frans Timmermans, a Dutch native who is the commission’s principal vice president.

Weber’s choice of Greece may also be politically astute after the country’s relations with Germany deteriorated at the outbreak of the euro-area debt crisis almost a decade ago, when German authorities championed a budget-austerity recipe for successive Greek governments dependent on international bailout loans.

Under a campaign emphasizing unity with the slogan “The power of we -- Weber”, he urged voters to reject “egoism and nationalism” in favor of international cooperation and compromise that have underpinned the EU since its founding six decades ago.

“Strength means unity, unity means strength,” Weber told a campaign event in Athens on Tuesday evening. “The nationalists will be our enemies.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.