BERLIN (Reuters) – Angela Merkel has given her backing to fellow German conservative Manfred Weber’s bid to front the centre-right’s campaign in next year’s European Parliament elections, several German newspapers reported on Thursday.
If other member parties follow the chancellor in backing Weber, who currently heads the centre-right European People’s Party caucus in the European Union’s legislature, he would be front-runner to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.
That would make the 46-year-old Bavarian the EU’s day-to-day leader as it attempts to navigate a world in which a Donald Trump-led United States is seen as an unreliable partner, it faces a stiff challenge from Russian and Chinese rivals and reinvents itself following Britain’s departure from the bloc.
The EPP’s member parties are in government in nine of the bloc’s 28 members, and lead in polls across much of Europe.
Merkel, who as leader of the EU’s most populous and wealthiest country would have considerable influence over the EPP’s choice of the centre-right’s “Spitzenkandidat”, or candidate for president of the European Commission, is believed to want to see a German appointed to head the bloc’s executive.
It has been decades since a German has headed the Brussels-based Commission, whose 30,000 staff draft and enforce legislation and has been instrumental in driving the process of European integration since the bloc’s beginnings in 1957.
German newspapers reported that Merkel had agreed after meetings with EPP President Joseph Daul in Berlin this week to throw her weight behind Weber, a Bavarian conservative.
News magazine Der Spiegel reported that Weber was currently lobbying to win other member parties’ support in Brussels ahead of a Helsinki congress at which the candidate would be chosen in November.
While Merkel’s backing will likely dash any other Germans’ hopes of winning the nomination, other widely mooted candidates remain in the race, including the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, France’s Michel Barnier.
While Weber is an ally of Merkel, his Bavarian Christian Social Union party is well to her right on social policy, and he is seen as an ally of strongman East European leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, outspoken critics of Brussels’ supposed desire for deeper European integration.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Dan Grebler)