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Weber upends EU leadership plans with plot to run Europe’s conservatives

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Manfred Weber, the self-proclaimed “Man of the Parliament,” has given up his claim to be the next president of the European Parliament — and possibly scrambled the EU’s leadership plans for the next two and a half years.

Instead of sticking to a deal everyone understood would make him president of the Parliament he loves so well, Weber — the German MEP and leader of the center-right European People’s Party group who ran a failed campaign for European Commission president in 2019 — wants to both keep his current job and add another: president of the EPP’s EU-wide umbrella organization.

The move, widely expected to win the backing of party bigwigs, will hand responsibility for the future of the party that has long dominated EU politics to a man whose lackluster bid for the EU’s top job was summarily rejected by EU heads of state and government, despite his party having won the largest number of seats in the EU parliamentary elections.

Weber’s personal maneuvering comes as the EPP confronts one of its lowest points in modern history — without a single conservative-led government west of Germany, and with Germany’s own conservative coalition struggling in a hotly contested federal election.

Weber pitched the unorthodox strategy as a way to stabilize the EPP amid this turbulence. Yet it also runs the risk of costing the group the Parliament presidency. By forgoing Weber’s presumed claim to the Parliament presidency, the EPP may struggle to claim it still has rights to the post over the current president, David Sassoli, a socialist, when his term expires early next year. Sassoli has signaled that he would be happy to stay on.

An arched eyebrow

Already some party members are raising eyebrows, asking if Weber will be able to spark renewed excitement for conservative candidates Continent-wide when he couldn’t generate much appeal for his own candidacy to lead the EU.

“Honestly, there is not much enthusiasm for him in this position,” said a party insider who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming in-fighting.

“He’s sometimes regarded as someone who is doing things a bit too much on his own, rather than creating a good team spirit,” the person added, while conceding that despite these misgivings there was widespread consensus that Weber would get his way.

“It is easier for everybody just to let it happen,” the party insider said. “But the problem is if there is no real enthusiasm within the troops. That is the problem.”

It’s hardly the only problem, according to other party officials.

The EPP’s top position is coming vacant because former European Council President Donald Tusk, who has led the umbrella party since 2019, has announced his plans to step down to return to national politics in Poland. Party officials have decided to move up the end of his term and choose a successor at an April meeting.

But Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who is one of the EU’s more charismatic and exuberant champions, was widely described as unenthusiastic about the party job, which he took over just before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to most travel and in-person political work.

“Tusk left in part because he was bored,” one party official said. “He did not do much, essentially because of COVID.”

The official added: “Internally, he did not create any real EPP party life.”

That said, other party operatives argued there was no one of Tusk’s caliber — certainly no former head of state or government — who now wants the position.

They traced the current situation back to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the EU leadership sweepstakes, in which she initially backed Weber but ultimately withdrew her support in the face of opposition from French President Emmanuel Macron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, among others.

The decision to instead select Ursula von der Leyen, then the German defense minister, as Commission president over Weber was both a repudiation of him personally (von der Leyen is also a member of the EPP) and a rejection of the EU’s Spitzenkandidaten or “lead candidate” process.

The choice was particularly stinging because one of the sharpest criticisms of Weber during the campaign was his dearth of experience as a government leader. Yet von der Leyen also had no such experience, and far less experience in Brussels than Weber.

Detractors also cited Weber’s lack of gravitas, and noted that he still did not seem older than his 49 years — even after he lost the Commission race, and grew the obligatory beard of trounced candidates in mourning.

The upside

Other EPP officials told a much more favorable narrative.

They insisted Weber enjoyed genuine internal support when he was nominated for Commission president, winning 79 percent of the vote at a party congress in Helsinki. And they argued he was denied the presidency not because he ran a lousy campaign or had little public name recognition but because Merkel betrayed him.

Among some in the party, there is an instinct to reward Weber for his loyalty throughout the events of 2019, and for his subsequent support of von der Leyen and her Commission’s agenda. Most crucially, officials said, Weber has now secured support for his plan to lead the umbrella party and the faction in Parliament from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

In addition to remaining loyal, some of Weber’s backers noted he had achieved important policy successes in the last two years. There were victories on major policy issues such as the budget-and-recovery plan, and landmark legislation produced on climate change and digital policy. Weber also helped win Commission support for his initiative to fight cancer, now called “Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.”

And they said Weber would be well-positioned to help the EPP claw its way forward after recent election setbacks, including losing power in countries like Spain, Ireland and Finland.

Others accused Weber of making a selfish move, having concluded that the two-and-a-half-year Parliament presidency would mark a dead-end for his political career. In contrast to his campaign slogan of 2019 — “The Power of We” — they said Weber now seems to be pursuing “The Power of Me.”

Even if there’s grumbling, no one seems inclined to block his path, one EPP politician said.

“Some in the group clearly raised their eyebrows … but not more than that,” the politician said. “There are questions: Does he really have ideas for the party or is it a personal goal to be able to survive in politics? I think it comes down to earning a little more, without taking too many risks, while hoping to still be there in four years’ time.”

The race for Parliament president starts now

Weber’s decision does mean he will give up a potential path to the Parliament presidency, secured as part of a 2019 deal between the three biggest party groups: the EPP, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the liberals of Renew Europe.

The EPP is now insisting the deal should hold, and the Parliament presidency should pass to another center-right conservative. Among the MEPs tipped as serious contenders are Roberta Metsola of Malta, currently a first vice president, Esther de Lange of the Netherlands, and the EPP group’s longtime No. 2, Esteban González Pons of Spain.

But Weber’s decision will make it easier for other parties to scuttle the deal. Sassoli could even push forward with his hopes of staying on for a second term.

Whatever Weber’s motives, some of his fellow conservatives see no harm in his actions. Some said they even envisioned benefits from consolidating leadership. Others argued there was no one better qualified to devise the party campaign strategy for the 2024 European parliamentary elections than the man who had been at the very center of the contest in 2019 — and lost.

“Even if he is trying to cling onto power, many members of the EPP see him as a very reliable person, that he is a man of his word,” a party official said. “There’s an aura around him, not because he is charismatic but because he has always tried to be in solidarity with the EPP and he built a very strong network within the EPP.”

Even some of Weber’s staunchest supporters were bluntly candid about his limitations. “He’s not the most exciting and glamorous guy,” said an EPP member based in a European capital. “But he had the support of the EPP — all of the EPP. And he’s a very competent guy as well. He’s a doer, but he’s not exciting.”

This EPP member said that given challenges facing all political parties and incumbent politicians, not to mention recent geopolitical and economic turbulence, Europe’s conservatives were lucky to have a steady captain — with or without pizzazz.

“Who do you think is going to lead the party?” the party member asked. “A former prime minister? He’s the best-qualified person who wants to do the job.”

“In my opinion, it’s the best thing that can happen,” the person added, “when it’s raining shit all over the place.”

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