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Europe

In the Face of a Populist Wave, the EU Is About to Elect a Total Unknown

Europe is set to replace Jean-Claude Juncker with someone you've definitely never heard of.

by Gavin Haynes
14 May 2019, 8:53am

Manfred Weber, top candidate for the European Commission Presidency (dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo)

The serial slappings, the insult comedy, the complex trade negotiations with Asiatic powers – and yes, the unwelcome hair-ruffling: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has delighted us with his antics for five glorious years. But sunrise doesn’t last all morning: eventually, even this giant of European politics must bow out.

Though few in Britain could ever tell you quite what the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg did, in effect Juncker was the closest thing we have to a Supreme King of Europe. Within the three-part structure of the EU, it has been his vision of Europe that has driven the Union forward these past five years; he has been marginally senior to both Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) and to the EU Parliament leader, Martin Schulz.

But that’s old news now. Over the last few weeks, the race to replace him entered its final straits.

The 29th of April saw the first public debate between four of the five key candidates, held in the Dutch university town of Maastricht.

These four candidates were each nominated by their own major grouping within the EU Parliament: The Socialists. Liberals. Centre-right "people'sparties". The conservatives. The Eurosceptics. The left. And the Greens. Except the Eurosceptics hadn’t bothered to put up a candidate for an office they view as illegitimate.

The Socialists' choice for the next Commission President was a Dutchman, Frans Timmermans, who is Juncker’s deputy. The Liberals were represented by a man already familiar to Brits: another Dutchman, Guy Verhofstadt. The mildly Eurosceptic Conservative group were being led by a greying Czech – Jan Zahradil. The militant European Left had chosen a Slovenian former actress, Violeta Tomic, while the Greens had picked – would you believe it – a Dutchman, Bas Eickhout. Yes, diversity of Dutchmen was the big winner, certainly if you throw in Flemish Belgians like Verhofstadt.

The organiser had paid some heed to identity politics, however: this first debate was meant to be pitched at young people – "Europe’s future". The audience was all sweet-faced youth, the sort of modern European citizens that British universities never seem to throw up – their faces kissed by both innocence and a mature belief in the historic inevitability of a federated superstate. They wore those blandly European clothes – the ones that make them look like they’ve just stepped out of 1996. It’s no surprise that C&A is still a big retail force on the continent.

It soon turned out that what The Kids could expect from the next Commissioner was the same narrow band of social-democratic politics they’re used to. In fact, given the level of violent agreement in the room, it didn’t seem to matter which one was picked: the answers all lay in cross-national legislation, wealth transfers and tax harmonisation.

Take the issue of regulating the tech giants. Each candidate in turn fell over themselves to say that they’d do so much more to crack down on Facebook and pals. Guy Verhofstadt even produced a graph showing how piddly Europe’s tech companies are in comparison to the US or Asian giants.

His solution? To create a highly-regulated single European market in tech, that would mean a European giant would have room to grow. The counter-argument is that Europe’s over-regulated, over-taxed, subsidy-directed tech market is precisely what has already caused us to lag behind Silicon Valley – but no one was on-hand to make it.

On green matters, the candidates leapt over each other to advocate for more carbon trading, green subsidies, car scrappage schemes, banning fuels of one type or another. Timmermans talked warmly of a "green new deal for Europe". No one mentioned the costs. Most were for a European Army. And asked whether they wanted to gender-balance their ministry, every single one stuck up their hands.

Beyond the identikit arguments, the chief problem with the debate was that it was utterly futile, because we already know the man most likely to claim the Commissioner job after these elections. He is the candidate of the largest EU Parliament grouping: the centre-right coalition of the European People’s Party. He is a German (which makes a minor change from all those Dutchmen, Belgians and Luxembourgers). His name is Manfred Weber – and if you haven’t heard it before, don’t worry: only 26 percent of his native Germans ever have.

But Weber is a close ally of Angela Merkel – he’s a moderate within her centre-right CDU/CSU coalition, and for reasons of internal German politics he is a good fit for her to defeat the more hardline conservative forces within her own party.

Weber’s campaign feels timely – it involves yoking together the opposing forces of populism and Europeanism. He’s still committed to the EU project in a stoutly German, unblinking way, but unlike the outright Europhilia of Juncker, Weber wants to re-connect the EU institutions to the people.

He was a civil engineer before he became a politician, and still lives in a small village in Bavaria, and makes much of both these indicators of ordinariness. "He’s more like a citizen in politics than he is a politician trying to be like a citizen," one supporter told Politico.

But he remains an odd choice, as much because he would be the first Commissioner in 35 years not to have been a national Prime Minister. For such a big job, he’s a decidedly mid-level kinda guy. In 14 years as an EU Parliamentarian, his key achievement seems to have been pushing to provide free InterRail passes for high school students.

The official reason given for Weber’s non-appearance was that he "had to attend an anniversary dinner for his political mentor in Bavaria". And if you believe that, then I have a used car to sell you.

Others were whispering that he sat this one out because he is a poor debater, under-experienced, a soft-spoken boy in a man’s world.

Jean-Claude always seemed like he’d bite your nose off if he’d had too much Riesling with lunch and you’d challenged his commitment to federalism. It’s telling that he and Farage, despite their differences, always had a genuine personal affection. They’re both street fighters: just for radically opposite causes.

For all Weber’s sensitivity to the coming populist tsunami, Europe will need more of a fighter if it is to survive the next five years, not a lover.

@gavhaynes