With the center-right set to win EU elections next year, the Commission chief’s scrap with EPP leader Manfred Weber will be pivotal in shaping the future of Europe for years to come.
BRUSSELS — They’re supposed to be political allies.
But squaring off over dinner and wine at the center-right European People’s Party’s Brussels headquarters in early July, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and party leader Manfred Weber tussled over the future of the EU’s environmental policy.
The prickly policy fight between the two Germans is central to what kind of Europe is liable to emerge on the international stage from EU elections next year, which their grouping of Europe’s conservative parties is on track to win.
While the cautious von der Leyen has governed the Commission as a broad-based technocrat, an aggressive Weber is now seeking to drag the conservative family further to the right, and mop up votes from those frustrated with migration and new green laws.
“Frosty, tense and no budging from either side,” is how one person with knowledge of the working dinner described it, backing up the accounts of two others who were in a room stuffed with the top brass of the EPP, from commissioners and MEPs to the Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola.
Publicly, von der Leyen and Weber’s teams insist they get on just fine.
But Weber’s attempt to shoot down a key pillar of von der Leyen’s green legacy one week after that uncomfortable dinner is the latest open disagreement in an increasingly strained relationship between the two heavyweights of the center-right.
This souring mood is all the more significant in the buildup to 2024 European elections, when all the institutions’ top jobs will again be up for grabs.
Weber — who leads the EPP’s 176-strong group of lawmakers in the European Parliament — is not a household name outside Brussels. But von der Leyen cannot afford to ignore him as she criss-crosses the world stage in her powerful role as European Commission president.
If von der Leyen decides to run for a second stint as Commission president, she would require the support of the EPP, as it is understood that candidates for the top EU job will need to run as a Spitzenkandidat — the lead candidate of their EU-wide political party. The Parliament also needs to confirm the Commission role in a vote.
But what’s at stake here is more than a personality clash: The two Germans are contending for the soul of Europe’s once all-powerful conservatives. While Weber has attempted to pull EU policies toward the right, von der Leyen has tacked closer to the center. The winner will likely shape Europe’s ideological direction for years to come.
“It’s a battle between Manfred Weber and Ursula von der Leyen,” said a senior EPP lawmaker granted anonymity to discuss sensitive issues within the group. “He wants to humiliate her and stop excessive environmentalism in the Commission. Weber wants to win at any cost.”
Although Weber says he supports von der Leyen, his behavior tells a different story.
His attempt to kill the file on nature restoration last month, the high-water mark of EU political brawling so far this year, not only increased tensions between the two, it also damaged both leaders.
Weber had staked enormous political capital on his bid to kill the bill; but lost out when 15 members of the European Parliament from his own party grouping rebelled against him. And just as her climate chief Frans Timmermans departs for national politics, von der Leyen was wounded because Weber’s right-wing alliance all but gutted the legislative text of this key Green Deal file.
Weber’s allies say he wants to influence EU policies to boost conservative numbers in the Parliament elections, where POLITICO’s Poll of Polls currently suggests his long-dominant faction will continue its slow decline, with forces further on the right projected to gain. Weber declined an interview request for this article.
Critics say he never got over the humiliation of missing out on the Commission president job when EU leaders overlooked him, instead anointing von der Leyen after European elections in 2019.
“He’s still fixated on getting the end goal of being the European Commission president or on having a say or an influence,” said a former EPP official who worked closely with Weber, granted anonymity in order to speak freely about their previous boss.
Weber has recently publicly endorsed von der Leyen for a second term in the Berlaymont, but only after earlier irking the president’s camp by suggesting that Metsola would be an equally good candidate for the job.
Central to the friction between Weber and von der Leyen is the bearded Bavarian’s attempt to draw the EPP further to the right, and put a more economic lens over green laws that had dominated the policy agenda before the pandemic and Russia’s war.
The pair also differ on other issues, such as migration. While Weber said earlier this year that he supported construction of a border wall, von der Leyen vocally opposed it. That’s another example of the ideological difference between the two: While Weber has moved to the right on issues like migration and climate change, von der Leyen — known for her secretive, uber-cautious leadership style — has moved more toward the center.
In Weber’s Parliament stronghold, he has been cozying up to MEPs to the right of the EPP’s camp, such as Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, whose numbers could swell in the next EU elections.
“His argument was essentially: ‘Let’s talk to parties to the EPP’s right on issues we can agree with them on, to try and take a piece of the not-so-extreme extremes, and bring them into the EPP,’” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
“Weber’s idea has little support among EPP leaders, and his plan is effectively now dead,” Rahman added, saying that Weber’s standoff with von der Leyen has “undermined his credibility and standing within the EPP.”
The fact that Spain’s center-right Popular Party, having flirted with the idea of governing with far-right Vox, did not emerge victorious in the Spanish election last month was a serious blow to Weber’s hopes that the EPP could recover its mojo and become the dominant political force among heads of state that it once was under the era of Germany’s ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Officially, of course, there is no standoff between Weber and von der Leyen.
A European Commission official close to von der Leyen, granted anonymity in order to speak freely, said: “The president appreciates Manfred Weber’s leadership and analytical view on important issues such as Russia’s war against Ukraine.” She “enjoys” her meetings with him “in a relaxed and open atmosphere,” the person added.
In a similar vein, Weber’s spokesperson Dirk Gotink wrote: “The relation between Commission President and Chairman Weber is very close and both are fully focused on the huge political, economic and security challenges that Europe is facing.”
“Von der Leyen is doing a great job as president of the Commission and the Chairman is very supportive of her leadership,” Gotink added.
Weber consolidates power
Even though von der Leyen’s power and international profile far exceed that of Weber, and she’s being credited with helping the EU weather successive crises, there are rumblings of discontent in her political family that she can’t entirely ignore.
And Weber’s agitating isn’t making life any easier for her in the Parliament, where some EPP lawmakers aren’t keen on her being the face of their next EU election campaign.
“If tomorrow I say our candidate is von der Leyen, I might as well go on holiday,” a second senior EPP member said, granted anonymity to speak about sensitive internal matters. Many MEPs are “very frustrated” with her, the lawmaker said, adding that there’s “lots of bitterness,” even among her fellow Germans.
Weber now wears two hats: not only has he been chairman of the parliamentary group since 2014, but last year he became president of the EPP’s political party, for which he’s also pocketing a handsome €20,000 salary per mo
Though few dare to say so publicly, Weber’s double role — dovetailing with a more aggressive communication strategy — also rankles some inside the EPP, suggesting he might not be so in control for much longer.
“There are people who are in favor and people who are against; time will prove if this was a wise decision or not,” said former EPP Secretary General Antonio López-Istúriz about Weber’s dual role.
The second senior EPP lawmaker said while Weber didn’t come out of the nature vote at all weakened, questions about such consolidation of power will arise after the EU elections.
“It’s never happened that someone is group president for so long, nor that they are sustainably president of the group and the party,” the MEP said.
Nektaria Stamouli contributed reporting.
Source: Politico.eu August 3, 2023