Merkel ally aims to succeed Juncker as head of EU executive

Lachlan CARMICHAEL
EU lawmaker Manfred Weber's move marks the start of a year-long rush for top jobs in the European Commission, the EU's executive arm

EU lawmaker Manfred Weber, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on Wednesday announced his bid to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission next year.

Weber's move marks the start of a year-long rush for top jobs in the Commission, the European Union's executive arm, and other major institutions as anti-EU populism buffets the bloc.

"I hope to be the EPP's candidate for the European elections in 2019 and become the next president of the European Commission," the leader of the biggest grouping in the European Parliament said on Twitter.

"Europe needs a new departure and more democracy," tweeted Weber, a 46-year-old Bavarian who heads the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

Weber, a member of the conservative CSU, an ally of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told reporters he wants to give Europe "back to the people", in a nod to those who see the EU as bureaucratic and elitist.

He also wants to heal deep divisions that have seen British voters decide to leave the bloc and some newer members from eastern Europe refuse to admit migrants.

"I deeply believe that only together we will be strong. Otherwise Europe has no chance in today's world," Weber said.

In Berlin, Merkel hailed Weber's decision. She noted that others may come forward, and that the EPP as a whole would decide, but added: "I support Manfred Weber's candidacy."

But Nathalie Loiseau, the European affairs minister for France, Germany's biggest EU ally, threw cold water on his candidacy and the nominating process for the job.

Loiseau suggested he may not be well known enough to rally voters behind EU institutions. "Who knows Manfred Weber's profile?" she asked students at the elite Science Po university in Paris.

Weber is the first to announce his candidacy within the EPP on the eve of the official period for candidates to declare themselves, a process that ends October 17.

- Fear of populists -

The EPP will then decide on its candidate at a conference in Helsinki on 7 and 8 November.

But the outcome depends not only on the various candidates but also the result of elections across the 27 member states between May 23 and 26 next year for a new European Parliament.

A summit of EU leaders will take place the following month to discuss appointments to top jobs in light of the results.

Juncker, a fellow EPP member and former Luxembourg premier, was picked in 2014 by a new and controversial "Spitzenkandidat" system -- from the German for "lead candidate."

Under the system, the biggest political group or coalition in the European Parliament nominates its candidate for the job.

The European Council of national leaders then makes the final choice, "taking account" of the parliament's nomination, in the vaguely worded provision of the EU treaties.

The whole parliament then gets a vote at the end.

Members of the European Parliament have argued that this is a more democratic method than the backroom deals between heads of member states that preceded it.

But some national leaders say it is in turn a stitch-up by Brussels-based political groups that harms national sovereignty.

Loiseau voiced alarm at the lead-candidate system: "Imagine if tomorrow the populists are the first group in the European Parliament and therefore we give them the keys."

It is not clear yet if the national leaders could upend the process.

Media in Germany, the EU's most powerful country, have reported Merkel wants a German to head the Commission, abandoning her bid to have a fellow national run the European Central Bank.

Besides the ECB, a new head of the European Council and a new president of the European Parliament must be named.