The top candidate of the European conservatives is nice, friendly, the CSU’s anti-crawallo. That’s likeable – and a problem. "Manfred who?"many Germans ask – and in Europe, many consider him a political lightweight. About a man on a difficult mission.
On Friday of last week, Manfred Weber stood in a spotlessly tidy training workshop and asked: "And, how do you see it with Europe??"A couple of apprentices at the Rolls-Royce plant look down at the floor, one takes heart and says: "Brexit, it’s all around us. Where do we go from here?? That is the question that interests us." The parent company of the factory in Dahlewitz has its headquarters in Great Britain.
Good question, next question. Manfred Weber does not know the answer either. But no one expects that from the CSU politician at this moment. You can’t know everything, even if, like Weber, you want to be head of the powerful EU Commission in Brussels after the European elections. And finally, the British themselves don’t know what will happen next.
Only a quarter of Germans know Weber
The brief visit to Dahlewitz, south of Berlin, is part of Weber’s listening tour. For weeks, the 46-year-old Lower Bavarian has been crisscrossing Europe. Sometimes he’s in capital cities like Lisbon, Athens, Zagreb or Helsinki, sometimes in the flat countryside like Dahlewitz, south of Berlin. In this way, the candidate wants to make himself known in all 28 member states of the EU.
Weber needs to be known. Manfred who? This is not meant in a disrespectful way, but describes a fact. A survey conducted at the end of April shows that only a quarter of Germans know who Manfred Weber is. The most promising candidate for the EU’s highest office, the hopeful of German conservatives, potentially the first German to head the EU in 50 years – virtually unknown. After the interviews, TV debates and campaign appearances of recent weeks, Weber should be more familiar to a few people. But even now, just a few days before the election, he hasn’t made it to prominence.
"Mane", the amateur guitarist
Weber is nice, courteous, speaks in a low voice, does not get over-excited. He is the anti-riot in the ranks of the CSU, which has so many speakers. He’s not a rambunctious man, he doesn’t play to the gallery – and these likeable qualities could prove to be a problem.
Weber is the unknown favorite who, like his competitors, has to cope with the peculiarities of the European electoral system: Weber can only be directly elected in Bavaria. Those who want "Mane," as the hobby guitarist is still called in his Lower Bavarian homeland, to become EU Commission president should therefore vote for the conservative parties that have joined together in the European People’s Party.
Bavarian and European: no contradiction
That is also the reason for Weber’s appearance in Dahlewitz. Weber himself is not electable, but the regional European candidate from the CDU is. Those who vote for him also indirectly vote for the top candidate from Bavaria.
That’s how it works everywhere Weber travels these days. On Saturday, he will stand in a hall in Zagreb, Croatia, and promote himself. On Sunday it is Sofia in Bulgaria. Weber says he is a Bavarian and a European. This is not a contradiction.
Back to Munich? No, thanks
Franz Josef Straub, the CSU’s founding father, once said: "Bavaria is our home, Germany our fatherland, Europe our future. Weber, born in 1972, skips the first two steps. He makes Europe his presence early on. The environmental engineer is elected to the Bavarian parliament in 2002. Weber is then chairman of the Junge Union in Bavaria; it seems clear that the Lower Bavarian will have a stellar career in the Free State. But Weber surprises all those who think that the most beautiful place for a politician to work is Munich, and there are still quite a few of them in the CSU. After only two years in the Bavarian state parliament, Weber moves to Strasbourg, to the European Parliament, in 2004.
With Horst Seehofer’s partial withdrawal, Weber even has the opportunity to become CSU party leader at the end of 2018. But Weber refuses. Europe is to remain his workplace, albeit with a change: after 15 years in the EU Parliament, he now wants to move to the top of the EU Commission, succeeding Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. The days leading up to the election are the decisive days in the political career of Manfred Weber.
No cooperation with the populists
These are also the days when Europe is shaken even more than usual by extraordinary events. In Vienna, the government of bourgeois-conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is breaking up over the video affair of his right-wing populist coalition partners from the Freedom Party (FPo). Right-wing populists led by Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini have been meeting in Milan to form an alliance that wants to fundamentally change Europe. Patriots are not, says Weber. He will not be elected by these parties and will not cooperate with them "on a single issue".
At least he now seems to be assured of the Chancellor’s support. "Manfred Weber should become president of the EU Commission," Angela Merkel shouts into a sports hall in Zagreb on Saturday. There she was received like a pop star. During the march-in, the Croatian version of "Eye of the Tiger" was playing, the announcer on stage calls Merkel a "political icon of Europe". If Merkel were up for election as EU Commission president, she would have the votes of the 6,000 men and women in the Drazen Petrovic basketball hall.
It all depends on Merkel
But the Chancellor is only an election worker for Weber. Bizarrely enough, she has so far not intervened in the euro election campaign in Germany, but is now jumping to Weber’s side in Croatia. It depends on Merkel whether the CSU man will actually become head of the Commission. Because Weber is not only dependent on Sunday’s election results, he also needs the favor of heads of state and government.
Weber is very well connected in the European Parliament. However, even party friends doubt that his wires reach all the way to Brussels, into the depths of the Commission bureaucracy, and all the way to the government headquarters in the capitals. The fact that he has no government experience is also interpreted as a disadvantage for Weber. He interprets the points of criticism into an advantage: They underlined only its distance from the Brussels Klungel. "I want to give Europe back to the people," Weber says of Weber.
The top candidate as head of the Commission: Macron doesn’t want that
But he may not get the opportunity to do so. Because some heads of government don’t think much of the top candidate concept – that is, that the top candidate whose party family emerges victorious from the election is entitled to the Commission presidency.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, for example, is bitterly opposed to this procedure, which was first practiced in 2014 at the instigation of Jean-Claude Juncker and the then SPD candidate Martin Schulz. As long as there are no transnational lists that allow a German, for example, to vote for a Dutch candidate, there can be no pan-European top candidates, Macron says. A long line of liberal heads of government from the Benelux countries and Scandinavia have joined Macron on this issue.
Weber and the grace of the heads of government
The double dependence on election results and the grace of government leaders diminishes Weber’s chances. He knows that – and counters with the accusation that his critics are doing the business of those who want to undermine democracy in Europe. "What should be wrong with telling people before the election who will subsequently be president of the Commission?", Weber said a few days ago in an interview with RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland.
Perhaps the Lower Bavarian will already know on Tuesday of next week where his journey will take him. Because that’s when Merkel, Macron and Co. will meet. to a dinner in Brussels to bend over the results of the European election. Until then, Weber will continue to move through Europe.