Germany Is Ready for a Fight as Merkel Targets EU's Top Jobs
(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel is preparing for a clash with France as she pushes Germany’s most ambitious bid yet for a top European Union job.
The German chancellor is focused on securing the presidency of the European Commission or the European Central Bank for one of her compatriots, according to officials with knowledge of her thinking. If her Bavarian ally Manfred Weber can’t lead the commission, a German should run the ECB instead, they said, asking not to be identified speaking about government strategy.
Merkel’s unprecedented bid to establish more influence for the bloc’s most populous country and biggest economy could turn the successions of European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and ECB President Mario Draghi into a battle with French President Emmanuel Macron. The first summit on the upcoming array of EU vacancies is just one week away.
“There is a mood in Germany that this time it’s Germany’s turn,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “If this time she doesn’t get Weber and fails to get the ECB, she’ll be seen as the big loser and would be declared politically dead.”
The chancellor’s demands may be a parting shot as she approaches the end of her tenure, but they come with justification. Germany -- the largest contributor to the bloc’s budget -- has repeatedly let its partners name such positions. A German last led the commission in the 1960s, and has never run the ECB.
By contrast, the French have always fought for their own, often successfully. Alumni at Europe’s major institutions include Jean-Claude Trichet, the ECB president for eight years until 2011, and Commission chiefs Francois Xavier Ortoli in the 1970s and Jacques Delors in the decade through 1995.
Macron hasn’t been particularly welcoming to Merkel’s position. His criticism of the European Parliament’s demand that it nominate the commission chief implicitly challenges Weber’s claim to the role as leader of the European People’s Party in upcoming legislative elections -- even if his grouping emerges as the winner.
Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has called for an ECB president with similar "courage" to Draghi -- a veiled criticism of Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, who often opposed the Italian’s policies.
Those salvos may also reflect a cooling in Merkel’s relationship with Macron. The two have struggled to find common positions on key political issues from trade to EU integration. Merkel said in a recent interview that France and Germany have differences but that both countries usually find a “middle ground.”
A problem for Merkel is that both of her country’s leading contenders for the top EU jobs are a hard sell. Weber has struggled to make a mark pursuing a role that is supposed to wield the political clout of the bloc. The chancellor’s influence in lobbying for him among leaders is also curbed by the role of the European Parliament in approving it.
Weidmann has the gravitas to lead the ECB, and Merkel might be able to exert more leverage for his candidacy among colleagues. But he also incites strong opinions, as suggested by Le Maire. An official from a different euro zone country, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that his government would oppose the Bundesbanker adamantly.
The ECB and commission jobs will both be vacant in November, and the possibility of a carve-up between France and Germany is controversial. European Council President Donald Tusk this month called for a “geographical balance as well as a demographic balance” in the region’s top jobs.
Merkel’s most recent signal of her determination came in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. She said that as a member of the country’s conservative CDU party, she supports Weber’s bid, but that doesn’t mean Germany hasn’t got other suitable candidates for top EU posts.
That may hint at seeking the ECB for Weidmann, or a less controversial German alternative such as European Stability Mechanism chief Klaus Regling.
A spokesman for the chancellor referred to her comments to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and declined to comment further on Merkel’s approach.
Some euro-region officials speculate that Germany would probably have to give up one of the roles held by its nationals if it does manage to clinch the ECB. As well as the ESM, the country also leads the European Investment Bank among major positions.
In the meantime, the lack of news about a possible solution to the impending French-German standoff in the prelude to the summit suggests no fix is imminent.
Merkel has acted to stem speculation, stoked by Juncker, that she could step up herself for a top job such as Tusk’s. She said last week that she’s “not available for any political office, wherever it is, and that includes Europe.”
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