By Jorge Valero
(EurActiv) — Blessed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and backed by big national delegations, Germany’s CSU heavyweight Manfred Weber is expected to soon confirm his candidacy for the post of the new European Commission president, with migration emerging as the top issue on his agenda.
EPP officials told EURACTIV.com that the leader of the European People’s Party group has intensified his contacts and phone calls with leaders and decision-makers over the past months.
The crucial push came early this week as Merkel gave her “blessing” to her compatriot to lead the EPP ticket in the European elections next May, the official added.
EPP sources added that Merkel would not get her hands dirty campaigning for Weber. But her support to the Bavarian politician cements his chance of becoming the centre-right’s Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate).
Weber’s CSU is the junior partner of the German governing coalition.
He could confirm his candidacy as soon as next week, as the EPP group’s bureau will meet next Thursday and Friday in Vienna.
The group meets two or three times per year. Last time was in the Bavarian capital Munich in June.
Migration is a top concern for the host of next week’s meeting, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country is chairing the EU’s rotating presidency.
And it will be also the priority in Weber’s agenda. “It is the issue that could tear Europe apart,” an EPP official highlighted.
Migration, a hot issue among Bavarian voters, is a topic he dealt with as a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).
Weber advocated for giving “billions of dollars” in aid to North African countries to cooperate on the migration issue, as Europe already did with Turkey. The goal would be to set up centres in third countries to see who is entitled to asylum protection.
At the same time, he said Europe needed “tangible results” in improving its external border management.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov has been invited to the meeting in Vienna, given his experience on this issue, as his country holds an external EU border (with Turkey) and party colleagues praised his efforts to fight illegal crossings.
The new leader of the Spanish People’s Party, Pablo Casado, will also participate. His nomination was seen as a shift to the right compared to the previous period under Mariano Rajoy. Over the past weeks, Casado followed a tougher line on migration expressed by Kurz or the CSU.
EPP officials said that Weber could have the support of EPP members from Germany, Spain, Ireland, Croatia and France, among others. The sources ruled out that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, would run.
Other contenders to become the EPP’s lead candidate in the elections include Finnish former prime minister Alexander Stubb. Besides his own delegation, he could win the support of the Baltic States and a few Eastern countries, although any proposal to severely cut Cohesion funds would alienate them.
Candidates can throw their hat into the ring between 15 September and 16 October. The party will pick its Spitzenkandidat at a congress in Helsinki in early November.
Despite the support of many fellow party members, Weber is an unknown figure for European voters.
However, EPP officials ruled out that this could be a handicap, given that other names that came up in other parties, including Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, are also largely unknown across Europe.
Regardless of who becomes the parties’ nominees, sources consulted in the EU institutions agreed that it could be very difficult to obtain a majority in the new European Parliament following next’s May elections.