As the EU is threatened from rising populism within its own borders, emboldened by a Trump presidency, do pro-EU leaders have the answers to defend it? MEP Manfred Weber tells Michel Friedman on Conflict Zone.
Conflict Zone’s guest this week is Manfred Weber, MEP for Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Weber, leader of the largest group in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), has been touted as a possible successor to Martin Schulz as parliament president.
But with German, French, and Dutch voters going to the polls in 2017 – and their incumbents facing pressure from nationalist fringes – whoever the new president is will face defending the principles of the European project itself in the countries that created it.
‘Le Pen is extreme, she wants to destroy our fundament of the European Union’
“I want to guarantee that this European Parliament is led by the pro-European, democratic forces,” said Weber.
He is one of a handful of names reportedly being considered for the presidency including former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who appeared recently on Conflict Zone.
But EPP leader Weber seemingly ruled himself out as a contender to Michel Friedman this week, though arguably not without leaving some flexibility closer to the time of the decision.
“I don’t have the intention to run as the president of the European Parliament,” said Weber.
The European Parliament will choose its next president by secret ballot on 17 January, as incumbent Martin Schulz leaves Brussels to return to German politics.
‘If we try to copy populism that would be a mistake’
Worryingly for supporters of mainstream parties, their candidates have yet to convincingly articulate the answer to populism beyond ‘not populism’.
“We [elites] have to rethink our position. And my position is that we have to talk about the concerns of the people,” Weber told Michel Friedman.
Angela Merkel notably failed to address populism in her first speech following her announcement she would run for a fourth term as German chancellor, though the CDU has published draft proposals ahead of next year’s elections with which it hopes to take on their opponents on the fringe.
Manfred Weber told Conflict Zone’s Michel Friedman: “We have to pick up the concerns [of the people]. And … we should not cross the red line of populism … If we try to copy populism, than we would make a big mistake. Because then we would even strengthen populism. We have to be clear, we have to have a clear answer.”
Whether this nuance – in the case of refugee policy, balancing a compassionate response to humanitarian crisis with the concerns of voters over economics and integration – will be powerful enough to cut through to an angry and discontent electorate remains to be seen.
The future of Turkey and the EU
In the case of Brexit, the populist sentiment of the Leave campaign on immigration proved a successful strategy.
Harnessing not only resentment about recent immigration from the EU, it also encouraged fears of future immigration from possible new member states, in particular Turkey.
Last week on Twitter, Weber admonished Boris Johnson over the British Foreign Minister’s recent expression of support for Turkish membership of the European Union – which represented a reversal of the position of the campaign to leave the EU, of which he was a leading figure.
The response of the Remain campaign – that Turkish membership of the EU wasn’t going to come any time soon – allowed both sides to forget that the UK has officially long been a supporter of Turkish EU accession.
Weber also called Johnson’s intervention an “arrogant provocation” at a recent press conference in Strasbourg, saying that his u-turn on Turkey meant he could “no longer respect what [Johnson] is doing in this regard.”
He also went on to say that “it’s a question of fairness, of respect – when you want to leave a club you have no say anymore in the long term future of this club.”
The European Parliament voted on 24 November to freeze the Turkish bid to join the European Union.
Mr. Weber told Michel Friedman: “I think the decision of the European Parliament was a good one, a very broadly accepted one by a lot of groups to say ‘full stop, enough is enough.’”
And was President Erdogan’s response to the vote that he would ‘open the floodgates’ of immigration to Europe blackmail?
“My answer would be that Turkey needs Europe much more than we need Turkey.”
Although the vote was non-binding, MEPs have expressed concern over increasingly autocratic behavior by the Turkish government under President Recep Erdogan.
Erdogan has also threatened to restore capital punishment in Turkey – a move which EU and European leaders say would end its bid for accession to the EU.