Manfred Weber looks set to inherit full control of the EU’s largest conservative political party — just as the empire is shrinking.
The German politician appears on track to become the new president of the European People’s Party (EPP) early next week, with EPP officials saying there is no discernable opposition with the deadline for candidates expiring at midnight.
If elected, Weber will become a dual-hatted leader of the organization — since 2014, he has also led the EPP’s group within the European Parliament, where it has the most seats.
To his backers, Weber is well-positioned to claw the party back after several major election setbacks in Europe, most notably in Germany, where Social Democrat Olaf Scholz replaced key EPP ally Angela Merkel as chancellor.
According to officials, he’s already drawing up plans to reshuffle EPP party senior ranks and some hope the consolidated power will help boost the EPP’s efficiency and visibility. As EPP president, his job would be to focus on getting conservative candidates elected in EU countries. As EPP group chair in Parliament, he would also continue leading the group’s legislative efforts.
“Manfred Weber knows in an excellent way all the EPP party members,” said Andreas Schwab, a senior German member of the EPP.
“With him, we are going to better focus our action in Europe,” he added. “And with a clear strategy, we are going to be able to reconquer the majority inside of which we will also be able to integrate new parties and political movements.”
But there is also grumbling internally about why Weber even wants to pursue this role, after ditching plans to run for European Parliament president and three years after failing in a bid for European Commission president.
“There are many people who wonder, ‘What is Weber’s purpose in all this?’” said one senior MEP from the EPP.
Either way, Weber’s likely time atop the EPP in the coming years will help determine the future of conservative parties across Europe. Currently, none of the EU’s five biggest economies — Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands — have EPP-allied leaders. And of the seven EU countries with EPP-linked leaders, several are smaller countries like Cyprus and Austria.
“The loss in Germany was a tough blow,” Weber told POLITICO in a statement. “But again you must believe in your project, you must believe in your ideas, you must believe in your way of doing politics.”
Weber’s path to EPP power
The EPP presidency is being vacated after Donald Tusk, who has led the umbrella party since 2019, said he would return to national politics in Poland to run Poland’s main opposition force, Civic Platform.
Weber stepped into this breach, declaring he would both run for reelection as head of the EPP’s Parliament group and vie for EPP president. He finished the first step last October, getting another term atop the EPP group. And next Tuesday, it appears he’ll complete the second step at a party congress in Rotterdam.
If he does, Weber will take over from Tusk in a less-than-ideal moment. There was some lingering dissatisfaction that the outgoing leader was hardly visible as EPP president, with Tusk’s critics saying he failed to sharpen the party’s profile after taking over just before the coronavirus pandemic.
In contrast, Weber has said he wants to give the pan-European party a stronger identity by working both as EPP group leader, overseeing and coordinating legislation inside his group, and as president, strengthening ties with EPP national leaders and party members.
The goal of shifting tactics is to stop the backsliding of recent years, during which EPP politicians lost power in countries like Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. In the recent French elections, the conservative Les Républicains earned a paltry 5 percent in the first round.
“There are good chances to take back the initiative in 2023 with elections in Finland, Spain, Greece and Poland,” Weber said.
Officials said Weber is already planning to form a new team at EPP headquarters, naming Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons as vice president and replacing Spanish MEP Antonio López-Istúriz White, the current EPP secretary-general. Some names have already surfaced forother vice-president positions as well as the secretary-general job, including Greek Minister for EU Affairs Miltiadis Varvitsiotis and Thanasis Bakolas, a senior adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
What’s your game, friend?
Officially, the EPP is behind Weber. But internally, there is frustration over his power grab at a time when the EPP family only has seven of the 27 EU leaders around the European Council table.
Officials wonder why Weber has chosen to accumulate power inside a party machinery that is little known outside Brussels.
“President of the party and the group, and then what? What is his aim?” wondered the senior MEP, musing over whether Weber might be plotting another bid for the Commission presidency.
Another member of the EPP in Parliament said “no one” knows what Weber’s intentions are. “Everybody likes him, and the question is, ‘What would be the alternative?’”
A third EPP insider admitted that Weber had “no plans” and is “just buying time and positions.”
The insider alleged Weber’s support from Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union rested in large part on country allegiance.
“The CDU supports Manfred because he is German but they are not enthusiastic about this operation,” the EPP insider said.
Officials close to Weber said the German politician has no ambition other than reviving the EPP’s clout, connecting the EU and national agendas and reconciling the conservative and liberal fractions inside the EPP.
Come next week, Weber’s colleagues will likely give him the chance to put that ambition on display — whatever it may be.