The top candidate of the European conservatives is nice, friendly, the anti-crawallo of the CSU. That’s likeable – and a problem. "Manfred who?", many Germans ask – and in Europe, some consider him a political lightweight. About a man on a difficult mission.
On Friday of last week, Manfred Weber stood in a spick-and-span training workshop and asked: "So, what do you think about Europe??"A couple of apprentices at the Rolls-Royce plant look down at the floor, one of them takes heart and says: "Brexit, it’s all around us. How to go on? 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 either. You can’t know everything, even if, like Weber, you want to become head of the powerful EU Commission in Brussels after the European elections. And finally, the British themselves do not 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 from Lower Bavaria has been traveling all over Europe. Sometimes he is in capitals like Lisbon, Athens, Zagreb or Helsinki, sometimes in the countryside like in Dahlewitz, south of Berlin. In this way, the candidate wants to make himself known in all 28 member states of the EU.
To become known, Weber needed. Manfred who? This is not meant disrespectfully, 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 hope 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 the last weeks, Weber should be familiar to a few more people. However, even now, a few days before the election, he has not made it to fame.
"Mane", the amateur guitarist
Weber is nice, courteous, speaks in a low voice, does not get overexcited. 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 those 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
This 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.
This is how it works everywhere Weber travels these days. On Saturday, he stands in a hall in Zagreb, Croatia, and promotes himself. On Sunday, it’s 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 homeland, Germany our fatherland, Europe our future. Weber, born in 1972, skips the first two rungs of the ladder. He makes Europe his presence early on. The environmental engineer is elected to the Bavarian state 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 in 2004, to the European Parliament.
Horst Seehofer’s partial withdrawal even offers Weber 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 Manfred Weber’s political career.
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 are meeting in Milan to form an alliance that wants to fundamentally change Europe. They are not patriots, says Weber. He will not allow himself to be elected by these parties, nor will he cooperate with them "on a single issue.
At least he now seems to be assured of the Chancellor’s support. "Manfred Weber is to 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. As they marched in, the Croatian version of "Eye of the Tiger" played; 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 comes down to Merkel
But the German chancellor is just a campaign 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 the election results on Sunday, he also needs the favor of the heads of state and government.
Weber is very well connected in the European Parliament. But even his 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 himself turns the criticisms into an advantage: they only underline his distance from the Brussels clique. "I want to give Europe back to the people," Weber said of Weber.
The top candidate as head of the Commission: Macron does not want that
However, he may not get the opportunity to do so. Because some heads of government don’t think much of the top candidate concept – i.e., that the top candidate whose party family emerges victorious from the election is entitled to the chairmanship of the commission.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, is a bitter opponent of 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, for example, a German to vote for a Dutch candidate, as long as there can be no pan-European top candidates, says Macron. A long line of liberal heads of government from the Benelux countries and Scandinavia have joined Macron on this issue.
Weber and the mercy of government leaders
The double dependence on election results and the grace of government leaders diminishes Weber’s chances. He knows this – 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 be Commission president afterwards?"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. get together. to a dinner in Brussels to bend over the results of the European election. Until then, Weber will continue to move through Europe.