CSU's Manfred Weber sets his sights on EU's highest office

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Alexander Stubb on Conflict Zone

A little-known Bavarian is seeking the European Commission's top office. Who is Manfred Weber? And does the little-known member of the Christian Social Union, Angela Merkel's CDU sister party, stand a chance?

This is Manfred Weber's moment: The politician from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), is the lead candidate for the European People's Party (EPP), the EU-wide bloc of conservative parties, in elections for the European Parliament in May 2019.

Weber hopes to use the elections as his springboard to the presidency of the European Commission.

"The campaign starts here in Helsinki," Weber told the EPP delegates on Thursday. "We are bridge-builders, let's use this momentum. Then we will win in May 2019," he said.

Weber won a decisive vote against former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb at the EPP congress in Helsinki on Thursday. Weber was considered the favorite despite the fact that the 46-year-old only has basic French and barely fluent English. Stubb is fluent in English, French and German.

Some members of the European Parliament see his language issues as a significant drawback; traditionally the heads of the Commission, a sprawling bureaucracy that employs more than 32,000 civil servants, speaks English and French in addition to their mother tongues.

Weber took over the chairmanship of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, in 2014. He is regarded as somewhat of a balancing act, who can quietly hold together the "flea circus" of the conservatives with a soft touch.

European Elections 2019: Candidates for the top EU job

Manfred Weber (EPP)

The center-right European People's Party (EPP) - the largest faction in the European Parliament - has picked Manfred Weber, its German parliamentary party leader. He has the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel. He beat his main rival, Finland's Alexander Stubb. Weber is little known on the international stage, and his language skills are considered poor.

European Elections 2019: Candidates for the top EU job

Frans Timmermans (S&D)

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission's first vice president, will lead the campaign for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D). Weber's main rival promises to bring the bloc closer to ordinary voters at a time when Britain's looming exit is one factor behind the nationalist movements across the EU.

European Elections 2019: Candidates for the top EU job

Jan Zahradil (ECR)

The third-largest group in the EU Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), has just one candidate: Jan Zahradil, chairman of the Czech ECR delegation. The 65-year-old is set to be officially nominated later this month after a party vote. Zahradil was affectionately known as "Forrest Gump" for a short while after cycling from Prague to Strasbourg for a parliamentary session.

European Elections 2019: Candidates for the top EU job

Ska Keller (Greens/EFA)

German MEP Ska Keller is one of several contenders to be one of two lead candidates for the European Greens/European Free Alliance. Keller co-chairs the Greens in the European Parliament and has railed against what she described as "serious human rights violations committed by the Saudi government." The Greens recently made large gains in German regional elections.

European Elections 2019: Candidates for the top EU job

Bas Eickhout (Greens/EFA)

Bas Eickhout is the second contender to lead the Greens/EFA in the May election. The 42-year-old Dutch MEP has championed a move to cap palm oil use by 2023, then reduce it to zero by 2030.

European Elections 2019: Candidates for the top EU job

Petra De Sutter (Greens/EFA)

Belgian politician Petra De Sutter is also in the running to be one of two contenders for the European Green Party/EFA in 2019. The 55-year-old is one of the bloc's few openly transgender politicians. Bulgaria's Atanas Schmidt is also still in the running.

The 219-member EPP includes the full spectrum of the EU right, from Hungary's nationalist Fidesz to the more laissez-faire Belgian parties. Weber's pro-Europe stance is often at odds with his own party, the CSU, which is why its members were reluctant to put him forward as a top candidate in the 2014 campaign for the European Parliament.

Regarding migration, Weber skillfully maneuvered between the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU and the views of Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU. By doing so, Weber was able to keep 11 Hungarian anti-EU Fidesz MEPs from abandoning the EPP.

Weber, a Catholic who is firmly anchored in the executive committees of the CSU, managed to garner Merkel's support for his candidacy.

Without the chancellor's approval, Weber would have zero chance of victory in elections for the European Parliament and in his efforts to become president of the Commission.

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Weber and Juncker, the man he hopes to succeed, celebrate the EPP's victory in 2014

It has been reported that Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have agreed that in 2019 a German would take over the presidency of the Commission and that the next leader of the European Central Bank (ECB) would come from France. Merkel has refused to officially comment on any such deal-making in Brussels.

The unknown legislator

Weber remains relatively anonymous outside the Brussels bubble and his constituency in Bavaria.

Many representatives from smaller EU countries have doubts about whether appointing a German to the top office of the European Commission is a good idea. In their eyes, Germany, the European Union's largest member, and the primary contributor to the EU budget, could become too dominant. A German has not been at the helm of the European Commission since Walter Hallstein in 1967. At the time, pressure from France meant Hallstein decided not to run for re-election.

It is uncertain how the populist coalition government in Italy will react to a German candidate. After all, both the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League blame Germany and Merkel for all manner of EU woes.

Weber's long road

After graduating from university in 1996, Weber founded a consultancy for environmental technology and remains the managing director, according to his official website.

On paper, Alexander Stubb looks like the better choice

Weber led the CSU's youth wing before serving in Bavaria's state parliament in 2002. In 2004, he was sent to Strasbourg to begin his career in the European Parliament. At first, Weber had seemed a little alienated by the legislature's bureaucracy, and he continued to run his company on the side.

In Germany, Weber made a name for himself in the CSU with his clear positions on domestic issues, and he was eventually appointed Seehofer's deputy. Weber has, however, never held a government office or led a ministry in Germany or at the state level.

Weber's critics like to contrast the lawmaker's career with those of the recent presidents of the Commission: Jean-Claude Juncker, Jose Manuel Barroso and Romano Prodi were, respectively, the prime ministers of Luxembourg, Portugal and Italy, and therefore understood the dealings of the European Council and the representation of the member states.

No guarantees

Who will eventually be elected to the European Parliament in May 2019 is impossible to predict as the far-right gains power across the EU.

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It is unlikely that the EPP and the rival Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) would have the numbers to renew their grand coalition. And even a grand coalition offers no guarantees for Weber - Germany's  Social Democrats in the European Parliament have already said they would not vote for him to lead the Commission.

What Macron's new center-right En Marche party will do is also unclear. The French president has already insisted that the top candidate of the winning bloc should not automatically be picked to lead the European Commission.

After Brexit takes effect next year, the 27 EU heads of state and government will have the right to nominate their own candidates. Weber is just at the beginning of a long election campaign without a foreseeable outcome.

The odds that he will succeed Juncker, who was the prime minister of Luxembourg for nearly two decades and speaks four languages, are fair to middling. But Weber may walk away with a reasonable consolation prize: He could be elected president of the European Parliament.

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