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Manfred Weber: No one can get past the EPP leader in Brussels

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European elections 2024

European elections

Even after the European elections on June 9, no one in Brussels can ignore Manfred Weber, the party and parliamentary group leader of the Christian Democratic EPP in the EU Parliament. But what are his plans?

Jacob Mayr

Manfred Weber comes from a small village in the Landshut district. The 51-year-old CSU politician still commutes between his home in Lower Bavaria and the seats of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.

This is the basis for his reputation as a down-to-earth politician, as a “Bavarian for Europe”, as he calls himself. As chairman of the European People's Party (EPP), Weber is one of the best-connected and most powerful politicians in Brussels.

His party family includes twelve of the 27 heads of state and government of the EU. Weber consults with them regularly. The EPP group he leads, which includes MEPs from the CDU and CSU, is the largest in the European Parliament.

Beer tent and conversation

Weber can do beer tents – when he has to: in mid-February, he stands at the lectern in his loden jacket at the CSU's political Ash Wednesday in Passau and lashes out against the traffic light coalition. But he doesn't seem to be in his element. He's not a loudmouth or polarizer.

During campaign appearances in Bavaria and European capitals, Weber tries above all to convince people through direct conversation. At the beginning of the year, he also visited Ukraine and returned visibly impressed after his conversation with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

According to the Christian Social Democrat, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shaken Europe awake. In the election campaign, Weber is campaigning for “making Europe so strong that no one will mess with us” – by having member states spend more on defense and buy weapons and equipment together.

Two types of top candidates

The term “lead candidate” can be confusing because it means two things in the context of the European elections:
On the one hand, it represents the top candidates on the lists of German parties that are running in the European elections. According to these lists, the top candidates will be the first to be elected to the EU Parliament for their party if they receive enough votes.
On the other hand, the term, which is now used throughout Europe, refers to the person who has been nominated by the European party associations in the European Parliament as a candidate for the top post of the “EU government”, the post of President of the Commission.
Some European politicians are both: the top candidate for their German party and for the Commission Presidency.

Majority acquirer

Weber wants to take more account of the economy in the sustainable restructuring of Europe. Under his leadership, the EPP group recently blocked important environmental laws. With a view to the de facto end of combustion engines in new vehicles from 2035, Weber is going back on track.

This is intended to reassure conservative voters. In doing so, Weber is willing to distance himself from the “Green Deal”, the flagship project of the EPP's top candidate Ursula von der Leyen. There is a certain irony in the fact that Weber is now supposed to organize a majority for the woman to whom he had to give way in the race for the top post in the Commission five years ago.

Power base expanded

Weber was the top candidate in the 2019 European elections, and the EPP received the most votes. Nevertheless, he failed due to the veto of French President Emmanuel Macron, who said he was unsuitable due to a lack of government experience and charisma. Weber disappeared for weeks – and reappeared with a beard. He did not publicly address how much this affected him. Instead, he steadily expanded his power base.

For a long time, he could not bring himself to throw the rule of law-breakers from the Hungarian Fidesz party out of his group. They finally preempted their exclusion by resigning.

Bavaria's Prime Minister and CSU leader Markus Söder also criticized Weber for his contacts with the right-wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Weber also got into trouble because he received a salary as party leader in addition to his parliamentary allowance.

Building bridges – also to the far right?

In 2019, the EU Parliament elected von der Leyen as Commission President by a narrow majority. After the election on June 9, things could get even tighter. Weber, who likes to call himself a bridge builder, is therefore looking for new partners – including on the right wing: He does not rule out cooperation with Meloni's “Fratelli d'Italia”, a party with post-fascist roots: “For me, the question is with whom we can organize majorities in Europe in order to move something constructive forward.”

In his view, Meloni passes the “Weber test”: cooperation only with forces that support Europe, Ukraine and the rule of law. Those around Weber are interested to see that Söder agreed to work more closely with Meloni during his visit to Rome in early May, thereby adopting the line of the EPP group leader.

Course maintained

Weber is one of the deputies of CSU chairman Söder – but the policy expert in Brussels and the power politician in Munich have little in common. They differ too much in style and political messages. The rivalry between the two goes back to their time together in the Junge Union 20 years ago.

Shortly afterwards, Weber went to Strasbourg and Brussels as a member of parliament. His credibility is based on the fact that he advocated a strong Europe in the CSU even in difficult times – for example during the 2014 election campaign, when his party took a Eurosceptic stance and lost. Weber saw his views vindicated: “The strategy was wrong,” he said.

Since then, he has set the tone for the CSU's European policy – and within the Christian Democratic party family in Europe. This means that the EPP party and parliamentary group leader could become the “queenmaker” after the election – if everything goes according to his plan this time.

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