On Thursday, the European People’s party will elect its Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) for the European elections. First established in 2014 as part of the procedural changes to electing the new Commission President, it is seen as the official response to an attempt to bring the EU closer to its citizens.
However, it is also widely viewed as an attempt by the European Parliament to have a greater say in who becomes the next Commission president and not solely leave the decision to the European Council. The Spitzenkandidat process means that the candidate from the political group coming out as the winner in the elections in May will become the person that the European Parliament will elect to become the next President of the European Commission.
Whether this will ultimately be the case in May, the EPP will be the first to choose their Spitzenkandidat. And their choice is between two candidates: former Finnish Primer Minister Alexander Stubb and current leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament, German MEP Manfred Weber.
But how different are they?
Different styles. Where Stubb is seen as the more modern and progressive candidate, Weber is viewed as more traditional, often characterised as cautious, soft-spoken and understated. His supporters have often attempted to paint him as a ‘everyman’, coming from a small village and one who does not have a long history of political office or authority. Active on social media, Stubb opted for a strong communications campaign engaging the “Next Generation of Europe” (his campaign slogan). He describes himself as a “Nordic feminist” as opposed to his “Bavarian male” opponent.
An EU vision around values and people. Both candidates’ vision for Europe is fundamentally similar and both remain strong believers and defenders of the EU project. Where Weber insists on bringing the EU closer to its citizens (“I want to give Europe back to the people”), Stubb is more focused on EU values (liberal democracy, fundamental rights) which he states are under attack from both inside and outside the EU. Consistent with this approach and his modern communicative style, he has already laid out his views on many issues, while Weber remains rather discrete and has run a more “internal focused” campaign.
Different tactics. Although they seem to agree on outcome, the way to get there clearly differ for the two candidates. Stubb positions himself at the centre and committed to addressing the possible disruptions within the EPP by agreeing on common values. He stated that he would like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz to sign a declaration of values and discuss “what they stand for”. Weber, on the other hand, has portrayed himself as the candidate of compromise and concessions, stating “I am a bridge-builder, that is one of my main messages. I don’t want to separate between good and bad Europeans”.
So while Stubb would be expected to steer a course toward the centre and look for partners among liberal centrists, centre-left socialists and possibly even the Greens, Weber is more likely to first be looking at building a coalition to the right of the political spectrum.
Similar priorities and programme. Whoever will be the winner, they will ultimately both defend the common programme of the EPP. Stubb has clearly laid out his priority areas to be:
- Digitalisation, where the EU should focus on and where new models of digital taxation should be developed.
- Migration, with better external border protection and a policy based on solidarity and humanitarian principles;
- Foreign policy, including defence policy and cyber security;
- Future of the euro, with a pledge to stick to common economic rules, whilst completing the Banking Union and the Capital Market Union, and transform stability mechanisms into a European Monetary Fund;
- Climate change: interestingly Stubb doesn’t think bringing down emissions will solve the climate crisis because only 10% of emissions come from Europe. Instead he thinks Europe should focus more on developing technologies.
Less specific and faithful to his ‘bridge-builder’ image and keeping his views internally in the EPP, Weber simply mentioned the importance of European Unity, the possible move towards more majority voting, migration and foreign/defence policy.
Is this election a done deal?
Although most observers agree that the deal is already done and that Weber will get the EPP’s support, choosing him would also overturn the custom of selecting former heads of government or senior ministers to lead the Commission. With a less political elitist background, Weber sees himself as a figure who can help heal the divide between the EU citizen and Brussels. Having received the endorsement of all EPP heads of government, Weber seems confident in his ability to win the process. Positioning himself as the outsider, Stubb does not give up and firmly believes his background in public administration, his banking experience together with his political experience, makes him the right choice. We will in the end have to wait until the result tomorrow to find out who will be the Spitzenkandidat from the European Parliament’s largest political group.