Following the end of summer holidays, politicians and their parties in Europe are starting this week to discuss the succession of Jean-Claude Juncker in the presidency of the European Commission.
Juncker, who has held the EU’s top job since 2014, has signalled his intentions to step down from the position after the European elections next May.
According to the Suddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) newspaper, for the first time in decades, a German is preparing to assume the most powerful post of the European Union and to succeed Juncker: Manfred Weber, vice-president of the German Christian Socialists (CSU) and leader of the European People's Party (EPP).
"The Bavarian politician explores the chances of becoming the first German president of the European Commission since Walter Hallstein in the 1960s. But he faces big obstacles," writes the German daily SZ.
The EPP parliamentary group will meet on Wednesday and Weber is expected to show his cards. On 10 September, the Christian Democrats (CDU) of Angelka Merkel and their Bavarian Partners (CSU) will discuss their choice of candidate. Weber needs the official support of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Last week, Weber met with Merkel in Berlin. According to German media reports, Merkel has no objection to the appointment of Weber as a candidate for the European People's Party, but that is not enough. It is required the support of other EPP parties.
"A German head of the European Commission is not necessarily beneficial to the Chancellor," SZ writes, adding: "Especially in southern Europe, where resentment against Germany in the wake of the euro crisis still lingers. Given that Juncker from Luxembourg was very modest, he was a good choice for Merkel. Whether it was the EU-Turkey agreement, the refugees or the tariff policy - Merkel has always been able to rely on Junger on key issues. On Tuesday, the two will meet in Berlin, and they will also have to discuss his succession. Perhaps Merkel will let things go first and leave Weber to take advantage of other people's decisions, " the German daily said.
Italian daily Corriere Della Sera estimates that with the nomination of Manfred Weber as candidate successor to Jean-Claude Juncker, the European leadership is attempting to transform the European People's Party into a conservative force with a clear right-wing orientation, capable of attracting the growing number European citizens who are being wooed by xenophobic parties.
According to the Milan-based newspaper, Weber wants tougher immigration policies and is opposed to multiculturalism, which makes him an ideal candidate to become a "bridge" to the Right represented by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Weber has also won the support of high-ranking European Union official Gunther Oettinger to replace Juncker for the EU’s top job.
“I consider Manfred Weber a credible and competent candidate and I am ready, within my limited possibilities, to promote him within the Christian Democratic Union” Oettinger told the Politico.
Weber is amongst a list of potential candidates for the role. Long-time ally of Ms Merkel, Peter Altmaier, is another name on the cards.
Other potential contenders include Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. Sources in Paris said French president Emanuel Macron would like to see Danish Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager succeed Juncker.
“Spitzenkandidat” or “lead candidate”
Picking a European Commission president is no longer in the gift of EU leaders. Under the Spitzenkandidat system, each European Parliament political group selects a lead candidate. The position of President of the European Commission then goes to the nominated lead candidate of the European political group that wins the most seats in the European Parliament elections. The process was used for the first time in 2014.
In 2019 new presidents are also to be appointed at the EU's other three important institutions: the European Council, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament.
Names being speculated upon the appointment of the European Council president have included Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, Enda Kenny, the former Irish prime minister, Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former premier of Denmark.
When it comes to the European Central Bank, an institution in charge of ensuring monetary and financial stability in one of the world’s largest economies, the race to succeed Mario Draghi as president has a new frontrunner. A Bloomberg survey of economists published on Aug. 29 shows Finland’s Erkki Liikanen is now holding a narrow lead over France’s Francois Villeroy de Galhau and Ireland's Philip Lane.
Crucial decisions are supposed to be taken at a summit of EU leaders in June 2019, a month after elections for the European Parliament. EU diplomatic sources said the elections will be decisive in determining the future direction of the Continent.