By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Germans must be ready to spend to bolster economies elsewhere in Europe, the German lead candidate for the EU centre-right said on Friday as campaigning gets underway for European Parliament elections in May.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party in the EU legislature and bidding to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as EU chief executive, told Reuters his compatriots had to understand that rising anti-EU nationalism in struggling economies like Italy should be countered by greater European investment to stimulate growth.
Under him, he said, the European Commission would expand the investment programmes launched under Juncker, a fellow conservative, maintaining tight controls on euro zone public spending but promoting expenditure on infrastructure and new technologies to compete in the globalised world economy.
Insisting he should not be seen as the candidate of the bloc’s powerhouse Germany, Weber said: “I am a European candidate so that’s why we have a European programme in mind. That’s why I go to Germany and tell people, don’t be surprised that we have so much populism in Italy and the Germans don’t care about youth unemployment in Italy.
“We have to understand that Europe can only have a good future if they care about the concerns of others.
“It’s only a solidarity based Europe that will work and that’s my message, all over Europe.”
Germany, running a budget surplus, has faced criticism from France, Italy and other governments struggling to free up funds for investment, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, with which Weber is aligned, has insisted that states must guard against wasteful expenditure and promote efficiencies.
Weber said there was funding available outside the public sector that should be encouraged: “We have a lot of money in Europe, there’s a lot of private money in Europe and we must … bring this money really alive,” he said.
The centre-right would also distinguish itself from other pro-EU parties to its left by promoting free trade pacts and deepening Europe’s internal open market. It would promote better living standards in poorer EU states to curb the drive for migration of labour across the bloc, he said.
Chinese investment was welcome, he added, but there must be tougher screening to avoid the Chinese state exploiting Europe’s openness to acquire research secrets and undermine EU businesses.
Among challenges the next Commission will face will be from governments in the ex-Communist east, such as in Hungary and Poland, which criticise Brussels and are accused of undermining democracy by curbing media and judicial freedoms.
Weber this week helped steer the EPP to suspending its Hungarian member, Fidesz, the ruling party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Expulsion was still an option, he said, but for now Fidesz would be kept under review by an EPP monitor.
That, Weber said, was a model he could adopt if he succeeds Juncker. He would push for a mechanism to allow for annual reviews of governments’ support for the rule of law according to three criteria – fighting corruption, judicial independence and media freedom.
A Weber Commission would entrust senior independent jurists to review countries and, if need be, take them to the European Court of Justice under the EU’s infringement process. He would also seek to levy financial sanctions on states abusing rights.
Opinion polls ahead of the May 23-26 elections show the EPP would remain the biggest party in the European Parliament, giving Weber a solid chance of becoming Commission president, though he may face resistance from governments who do not want to be bound to choose from among party leaders.
Commission presidents have traditionally been former prime ministers or senior ministers but Weber said nominating a figure from parliament would bolster Europe’s democratic credentials at a time when the Union was under attack by populists.
“I want to live in a democratic Europe,” he said. “I don’t want to have a bureaucratic Europe.” He described the Council of national leaders as lacking transparency.
“I want to have a parliamentary democracy.”
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)