The most powerful political alliance of Europe is to choose a Bavarian deputy without government experience as a candidate for the best work of the EU, since the continent's center-right movement struggles with an identity crisis ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.
Manfred Weber, a little-known German conservative outside Brussels, is the favorite to be elected on Thursday spitzenkandidat for the European People's Party, an umbrella group that includes mercenaries, Christian democrats and free illiberal nationalists.
The nomination would make Weber the frontman for the center-right campaign in the European elections of May 2019, and his official choice to become the next President of the European Commission – a position that successive EPP political leaders have held since 2004.
Mr. Weber has quietly amassed the support of the EPP leaders, from Angela Merkel of Germany to Hungary Viktor Orban, and is widely expected to beat rival Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland, in the EPP delegates' vote in Helsinki. Mr Stubb readily admits a "losing" campaign from the party's liberal wing.
Weber, who currently leads the EPP in the European Parliament but has never held senior positions, presented himself as a moderate pragmatist able to bridge the divisions of a polarized immigration policy, economic regulation and the budget of the blockade.
But his rise comes at a time of trial for a political family that has enjoyed outsized power in the EU. The numbers of the EPP poll are waving in its western lands, a new generation is taking the helm and the political movement is grappling with deep ideological divisions that are testing its twenty-year grip on power in Brussels.
Joseph Daul, president of the EPP, said that the party has "nothing to be ashamed of" and has shrugged off the tight policy in front of the center-right governments, saying "those in power always lose". He also defended the patient approach to Mr. Orban and his nationalist party Fidesz, whose government clashed with Brussels for its grip on judicial independence, migrants' rights and civil society.
"Every family has a enfant terrible", Daul said when asked if the Hungarian autocratic premier were to be expelled." But since I am a Christian Democrat, I prefer to keep my enfant terrible inside the family and being able to talk and reason with him ".
Under the direction of Helmut Kohl in the 1990s, the EPP has opened the door to a number of pro-market and center-right parties, including the newly liberated countries of Central Europe and Oriental.
But in recent years the rise of Eurosceptic and populist forces has forced the EPP to reconsider its approach, especially considering the possibility of expanding its membership of nationalist and anti-establishment parties in recovery as those in Italy and Poland.
While the energetic campaign by Mr Stubb was blatantly inspired by liberal values, Weber took a more mediated approach that aroused the conservative instinct of the EPP base.
Weber resisted Orban's expulsion requests, but reported his discomfort with the Hungarian leader this year by supporting a resolution of the EU parliament that censors his government.
At the same time, Weber has drawn a clearer line on the admissibility of the parties, going against the attempts of Mr. Orban to open the doors of the EPP to nationalist forces with a similar mentality, such as the Justice and Justice party of Poland and the League of Italy.
Alain, a French veteran for the EPP, Alain Lamassoure said that Orban's fate was linked to the outcome of Thursday's vote. "[I]It is clear that if Stubb wins, he will want to get rid of Fidesz because he has made the struggle for our values a priority, "he said.
"On the other hand, if Weber wins, he will want to keep Orban," he added.
The EPP decision on a major candidate for next year's elections also comes at a time when Western European party leaders, such as the Bavarian CSU and French Republicans, take on the nuances of Orban nationalism as a way to revive the polls and reject the challenge of the anti-EU forces on the far right.
Despite the internal discord, opinion polls still suggest that the EPP will maintain its record of electoral victories next year, remaining the largest group in the EU parliament, with considerable political influence.
Mr. Weber's fate will depend on whether the strength of such a performance can overcome the concerns of giving the presidency of the commission to someone without high-level governmental experience.
The final decision on the appointment of the chairman of the commission is up to the national leaders, even if Mr. Weber and his steering group would therefore need the approval of the European Parliament.