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One of Brexit's biggest critics is standing for European Commission's leadership

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Manfred Weber at Downing Street for talks over Brexit with Theresa May in November 2017 (Getty)

The race to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president is underway after German conservative Manfred Weber became the first would-be successor to announce their candidacy.

It has been a badly kept secret in Brussels that Weber, who leads the largest political group in the European parliament and an ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, covets the EU’s most powerful role.

Now he has broken cover in a bid to get a head start on potential competitors from his own centre-right European People’s Party group, which could include EU Brexit chief Michel Barnier.

Weber has consistently taken an uncompromising position on Brexit, predicting in March that negotiations will deliver a “bad result for the EU but worse for the UK.”

In response to Theresa May’s Mansion House speech in March, which was welcomed by others in Brussels, he warned a deal was becoming more unlikely because the UK “continues to bury its head in the sand.”

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When Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority at the last general election, Weber said it showed it was “better to reform the EU than to leave.”

He has also called Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage “cowards” and said they risk splitting the UK.

He’s also caused controversy with his views on religion, talking about a “dominant culture” in Europe and claiming “European values are inspired by our Christian roots.”

The statement he released to announce his candidacy suggested that would be a theme of his campaign. “Today is about the self-assertion of Europe and the defence of our values, because we are being challenged from the outside and the inside,” he said.

“It’s about the survival of our European way of life. We cannot go on as we are now in the EU.”

Weber also spoke about the need for “more democracy” in the EU, but was accused of hypocrisy after refusing to take any questions at a press conference to announce his candidacy.

With the EPP tipped to be the largest group in the European parliament again after next year’s European elections, Weber stands a strong chance of achieving his long-held ambition. But he first must overcome internal rivals.

Barnier had been tipped for the EU’s top job after his Brexit role made him a household name, but the overrun in negotiations seem to have scuppered his chances.

Weber, who is from the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, could still face a German rival.
It was reported last month that the German chancellor may prefer CDU economy minister Peter Altmaier.

French IMF director Christine Legarde is mentioned as a possible non-German candidate with the confidence of Merkel.

The EPP’s selection process opens on Thursday and their commission candidate will be named after a vote at their congress in Helsinki on 8 November.

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