Kevin Doyle: ''Ireland ally' Weber now in pole position to land top job in the EU'
Angela Merkel is leaving the stage but another pragmatic German is on course to take up a key position at the centre of European politics.
Manfred Weber, a guitar-playing Bavarian, yesterday won the backing of the European People's Party (EPP) to run for president of the EU Commission next year.
He had locked in the support of Fine Gael long ago in his battle with former Finnish prime minister Alex Stubb.
Mr Weber (46), a practising Catholic who has never held a ministerial position, won 79pc of the support of delegates at an EPP conference in Finland.
But if that result was a walk in the park, his campaign to replace Jean-Claude Juncker will be anything but.
Much of the conversation in Helsinki this week has focused on the threats facing the EU rather than the opportunities.
Ms Merkel even warned that the Union risks not being taken seriously by the United States and China unless it gets its act together.
The EPP is losing influence in many countries as more right-wing parties rise.
"The campaign starts here in Helsinki," said Mr Weber after his resounding victory.
"We are bridge-builders, let's use this momentum. Then we will win in May 2019."
That calm tone of compromise is one he applies to most things - but not necessarily to Brexit.
Fine Gael enthusiastically backed Mr Weber, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was among the first to congratulate him in person. Last night Mr Varadkar said he hopes Mr Weber will become the commission's president. "He's very much a friend and ally of Ireland. We'd like to see him have the top job for the next five years."
But the Fine Gael leader will expect that trust to be repaid as he tours European capitals in the coming months.
Mr Weber takes a very dim view of the Brexit decision to leave the EU. At a pre-election debate on Wednesday night, he warned the UK must be made to feel the consequences of Brexit. "I must tell you one clear message: I cannot vote in the European Parliament for a leave treaty when next March nothing would happen," he said. "People in Europe must see a difference whether you are a member of the European Union or whether you will be out of the European Union."
Analysts suggest the EPP will win 219 parliament seats out of a total 705 in next May's election. That will place Mr Weber in pole position to become commission president.
Ultimately though, it will be the leaders of the EU27 who decide if he gets the job. Already French President Emmanuel Macron has challenged the idea that the party with the most MEPs should have an automatic entitlement to hold the presidency.
Winning the EPP vote was the easy bit.