Battle for Berlaymont is open

EPP's Manfred Weber was first whose name was waved as possible Juncker's successor

The race is open. And the first horse is already on the field. Almost nine months ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, the battle who will succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President began.

The starting signal for the race came from Germany as several German newspapers reported last week that Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed her fellow conservative Manfred Weber's bid to lead the centre-right's campaign in next year's elections. Currently he heads the European People's Party caucus in the European Parliament. Weber still needs the nod from other member parties in order to get the approval. But once got, he would, no doubt, become a front-runner to succeed Juncker as Commission's head. The EPP's member parties are in government in nine of the bloc's 28 members, and lead in polls across much of Europe.

“I want to become the EPP’s lead candidate for the 2019 European elections and be the next president of the European Commission,” the 46-year-old tweeted last Tuesday during a meeting with members of his European People’s Party (EPP) in Brussels.

Nothing is sure so far. The process of nominating a lead candidate for the EPP will officially begin next week, with an official announcement set for November. While Merkel has thrown her support behind Weber, other strong candidates wait to jump on the stage at due moment. Former Finnish PM and Finance Minister Alexander Stubb and Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier have also emerged as possible and rather strong candidates. And Germany's Christian Democrats have also floated the country's Economy Minister Peter Altmaier and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen as potential options.

Supporting Weber for the Commission's top post is part of a wider game, according to people close to the matter. With putting his name at the front, Merkel makes a step back on the ECB front where another German, Jens Weidmann, has an ambition to succeed Mario Draghi when his mandate expires next year. Taking both posts for Germany is impossible and Merkel has to make a choice. Obviously so far she has concluded that it is more useful for Germany to secure the Commission post than the top ECB job. But this can change in the coming months. The last German to head the Commission was Walter Hallstein in the 1960s.

Born in 1972, Manfred Weber can not be pointed at as a veteran in European politics although he has experience more than enough. He has been a MEP from Germany since 2004, and since the last elections in 2014 he has served as EPP leader in the European Parliament. Currently heading the EPP Group, he is the youngest group leader in the current Parliament as well as the youngest-ever group leader of the EPP. Weber is known as a moderate politician and power broker in EU politics.

Weber is known to be a staunch pro-European. In June 2014, he dismissed demands by then-British PM David Cameron to put the brakes on European integration. According to Weber, “the EU is based on an ever closer union of European peoples. That is set out in the treaties. It is not negotiable for us. We cannot sell the soul of Europe if we grant every national parliament a veto right, Europe would come to a standstill”.

At the same time, he is courageous and feels free to express his own thoughts even contradicting the main line. In 2011, when the Eurozone crisis raged, Weber said: “We in the CSU must finally stop always blaming Brussels. The current crisis has primarily been caused by a few national governments, not by Brussels.” In a party that includes some of Germany's most outspoken Eurosceptics and is now under attack from the even more outspoken Alternative fuer Deutschland, such comments require strength.

With such abilities, the 46-year-old Bavarian could easily sit at the helm of the EU 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 Union.

But at the same time it is a common knowledge that the names thrown first into the flames rarely make it to the end. So far, Weber has declined to comment on his ambitions about the Commission's top post. As a Bavarian himself, he has also secured the support of Bavarian PM Markus Soeder, but this is far from enough. “I really hope the German conservatives make our Manfred Weber the lead candidate for the European election,” Soeder said in Abensberg, Bavaria. If finally Weber gets the nomination, the European People's Party is likely to need the support of liberal parties to install him as the next European Commission head. So the game has just begun.

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