The real danger facing the European Union

EPP leader Manfred Weber says he will fight the radical right if elected EU Commission President. Can we believe him?

Manfred Weber
Manfred Weber, Chairman of the European People Party group (EPP), is pictured at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on September 11, 2018 [Vincent Kessler/Reuters]

American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois once suggested, “always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life.” Such hopes are unfortunately fading away on both sides of the Atlantic. The election of Donald Trump as president destabilised the institutional system and social bonds in the US, and the European continent is certainly not experiencing a golden age either.

Exclusionary nationalisms, narrow patriotism, chauvinism, and incidents of ethnicity-based violence are on the rise in a number of EU member states. And as demonstrated once again in Sweden last Sunday, anti-immigration far-right parties are making considerable gains in most European countries.

Ahead of the May 2019 European Parliament election, confidence levels of euro-elites appear to be running low. Earlier this month, EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger, who is a member of the leading Europe’s People Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, suggested that the European project is under threat. As well as outside opponents such as Russia and China, he said, “some within Europe want to weaken it or even destroy it – Poland, Hungary, Romania, the government of Italy.” 

The general mood may be low, however, the EU establishment recently took action to prove that it is not sitting idly by as these right-wing governments attack the foundations of the European project.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament voted to launch punitive action against Hungary for breaching the bloc’s core values. The move may bring unprecedented political sanctions against Budapest and even strip the Hungarian government, led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, of its EU voting rights. 

Chairman of the centre-right EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, was one of the prominent MEPs who voted for the motion. “I will vote in favour of Article 7,” Weber said on Tuesday, referring to the procedure that can lead to a member country losing its voting rights inside the EU. “I think we had enough dialogue.”

The next president of the EU commission?

On September 5, only days before taking a strict stance against Orban, Weber, of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), had announced his candidacy in the EEP for becoming the next president of the European Commission.

In his candidacy announcement, he had argued that “the EU is challenged from the outside and attacked from the inside by radicals, nationalists and anti-Europeans”, and claimed his tenure will represent ” a new beginning and a new chapter for Europe. This is urgently necessary because we cannot go on the way it currently is.”

Weber is probably right in seeing Europe at “a turning point”. And as a leading candidate for the next president of the EU Commission, on the surface he appears more than ready to counter nationalist, anti-European threats – after all, he voted in favour of the motion against the Hungarian government (And harshly criticised the Polish government in July for jeopardising the independence of the judiciary). 

However, his commitment to fighting the populist tendencies of the European far right is only skin deep. 

Only a couple of days before voting for Hungary to be punished for breaching the bloc’s core values, Weber had advocated that the EPP “have to work with everyone … to find out a common vision.” This fundamentally meant getting closer to Orban and Matteo Salvini‘s nationalist vision and using the “identity question” as a mobilising flag in the party’s electoral campaign.

In late August, Weber visited one of the migrant’s routes in Europe on the Turkish border and praised fellow EPP politician Boyko Borissov, Bulgaria’s prime minister, for his handling of migration. 

Bulgaria is showing that it is possible to protect the EU external land borders, and also to efficiently control arrivals by sea. This has the full support of the EPP Group,” he tweeted.

Borissov’s government has been criticised for its treatment of migrants, and independent watchdogs are concerned about the freedom of media in the country.

Weber’s support for Borissov’s immigration policies and his earlier statements on “finding a common vision” with the likes of Orban and Salvini demonstrates that he has a very narrow understanding of core EU values and the European identity. Weber, who is likely to take the helm of the European Commission in a year’s time, may appear to be against Orban’s “anti-European” rhetoric, but it is hard to claim that he has a problem with many of his illiberal, anti-immigration policies. 

After all, Weber’s CSU has been troubling German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her migration policies for a very long time and is quite tough in defending the Christian roots of the European continent. Moreover, in June a leaked draft on the future EPP priorities suggested using drones to patrol the EU borders, having “the systematic right … to build fences”, and, preserving “the European way of life“.

As Weber put it, “[the] European Elections 2019 will decide the future of the EU”. However, Germany and its government’s pro-immigration stance is not about to take over the union, as some British tabloids claim these days. The most serious danger the union is currently facing is the watering down of the process of European integration and the placement of some illiberal, nationalist and anti-immigration policies at the centre of the next EU Commission, by the likes of Weber.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.