Germany’s New Leadership Agenda

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Wednesday, a relatively little-known politician from Bavaria announced his bid for the European Commission presidency. Manfred Weber’s chances are strong and, if successful, he’ll be German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s point man in a new enterprise: an attempt at conscious German leadership in Europe.

Despite being the longest-serving leader of a top-10 global economy, Merkel has been pointedly unwilling to take on an international leadership role. She’s much more comfortable as a negotiator of compromises than as a driver of change, and Germany’s historic baggage has understandably tempered modern German leaders’ global ambitions. So until recently, Germany wasn’t expected to try for the European Commission presidency, which comes open next year after Jean-Claude Juncker steps down. The country has been content with its backroom influence, which comes with holding more senior positions in the European bureaucracy than any other nation. Behind Juncker stands the powerful figure of German Martin Selmayr, the Commission’s secretary general, who shuns publicity but is highly influential.

It’s likely that U.S. President Donald Trump’s treatment of the EU, and particularly Germany, as an adversary has prompted Merkel to seek the bloc’s most important job for her country. It was assumed until recently that she’d aim for the European Central Bank presidency, which Germany has never held and which the conservative German central bank president, Jens Weidmann, has long coveted. The change in Merkel’s thinking became common knowledge in late August, though she’s been careful not to confirm it publicly.

The logic behind it can be gleaned from Merkel’s June interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, mostly devoted to European affairs. “Germany has an elementary interest in a Europe that’s capable of acting,” the chancellor said, mentioning Trump’s adversarial actions as an important reason. To Merkel, an action-capable Europe means common foreign, defense, asylum and development poilicies, as well as a strong capital markets and banking union to stabilize the euro. She’s not, however, an idealistic EU federalist: Rather, her interest in strong coordination on a moderate, limited agenda.

Weber leads the European People’s Party faction, the biggest political group in the European Parliament, and he’s a powerful, knowledgeable insider. There are other advantages to Weber’s candidacy, from Merkel’s point of view. Weber’s party, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, is locked in a lifelong partnership with her Christian Democratic Union, but it has lately given her trouble as it shifted to the right on immigration policy and nearly blew up the ruling coalition. Supporting Weber (and keeping him out of Bavaria, where he could be a strong competitor to the current party leadership) could be a way to strengthen the faltering relationship between the sister parties. At the same time, Weber could be a bridge-builder with the EU’s rebellious eastern periphery: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the doyen of eastern European nationalists whose party is a member of the EPP, considers him a comfortable negotiating partner.

Besides, on Europe, Weber’s views align well with Merkel’s. As he announced his candidacy, he tweeted that the EU “cannot go on as we are now” and promised “a new beginning and more democracy.” His recent speeches, however, reveal a moderate mainstream politician who aims for more cohesion and efficiency rather than any kind of revolution in EU affairs. He is, for example, in favor of abolishing the current EU rule about only making unanimous decisions on foreign policy, and he’d like to cut the number of commissioners from the current 28 (think “action-capable”). Weber backs building a European army by 2030, setting up a common external border protection system and focusing EU investment on innovation and infrastructure.

Weber could have written Merkel’s June interview, and she could have penned his speeches and op-eds. As Commission president, in charge of administering the EU budget and drafting the bloc’s rules and regulations, he could be an asset to the chancellor.

At the same time, like Merkel, he’s acutely conscious that a German politician in Europe needs to be cautious lest he be seen ordering others about. During a recent parliamentary debate about rule of law in Poland, Weber addressed Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who represents the nationalist PiS party:

Prime Minister, because of your PiS governmental propaganda, I never took the floor here in this House when we spoke about Poland: I was afraid that my German background could be misused to attack my friends in Poland and others who are fighting there for the rule of law and freedom. I was afraid that it could be framed as “the Germans are telling us.” We sometimes hear this in Poland: “the Germans are telling us.” I was afraid to take the floor here, and I want to tell you that I am not speaking here as a German member of the European Parliament. I am speaking here because 219 colleagues voted for me as leader of this Group.

This shows that Weber, if he gets the top Commission job, will be careful to enlist allies rather than stubbornly push the German view. That fits in with Merkel’s compromise, do-no-harm philosophy.

The political process for appointing the Commission president is complex. Even if the EPP does well in next year’s European Parliament election, remains the biggest group in the legislature and selects Weber as his candidate, there will be plenty of competition. Though Weber has praised French President Emmanuel Macron as a European visionary, he may not get France’s support because Macron dislikes the party-based selection process that got Juncker his current job and offers Weber his best chance.

Still, Weber’s run — at this point, with Merkel’s cautious blessing — is worth watching. A new, more internationally assertive Germany is being born, and Weber could be one of those who get to develop its leadership style.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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