STRASBOURG — The European Conservatives and Reformists endorsed Czech MEP Jan Zahradil as their nominee for Commission president on Tuesday, vowing to remain the major Euro-critical voice in the Parliament.
„We have always been serious about a genuine EU reform,“ Zahradil told POLITICO, a few hours before he announced his candidacy on the margins of a parliamentary session in Strasbourg. „It is, therefore, a serious offer to present our candidate for European Commission president.“
The announcement makes Zahradil the first Eastern European Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, to ever be nominated by a political group.
Becoming Commission president will prove difficult for Zahradil, however, as the ECR — now the third largest force in the chamber — will lose its 19 British Conservative MEPs on Brexit day.
On Tuesday, he said he wanted the ECR to “at least remain the third largest group“ in Parliament.
Zahradil said he had run as a Spitzenkandidat so he wouldn’t lose „one very important opportunity to communicate our program, principles and plans to the public.“ However, he added that „it is the Council who selects the candidate for next EC president.“
Members of the Council have resisted the Spitzenkandidat process, arguing they should have a free hand in nominating a Commission president. The EU treaties specify that the Council should propose a Commission president, taking into account the European Parliament election results. The Council’s nominee then needs the approval of a majority in Parliament to take office.
Zahradil said he had doubts that either of the two other candidates in the running for Commission president so far — Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party and Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans, the contender for the Party of European Socialists — „could bring any fresh ideas.“
It’s time „for someone with different life experience, different perspective and perhaps from different part of the EU to come up,“ he said.
The ECR was formed in 2009 after former British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to pull his MEPs out of their alliance with the European People’s Party.
The ECR group says it stands for EU reform, open markets, lower taxes and family values. Its members include Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS), Belgium’s largest party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), and the anti-immigrant Finns party.
Zahradil will present an election manifesto on November 28, which will include three priorities: A „great review“ of the EU’s body of law, establishing the EU „as the world trade leader,“ and „refocusing“ EU spending on external border protection „by helping the pressured states.“
But Zahradil will also need to restore the image of a group that has faced internal turmoil.
Earlier this year, two prominent Tory MEPs, Richard Ashworth and Julie Girling, left the group, while PiS MEP Ryszard Czarnecki was removed from his position as a Parliament vice president after he stirred controversy by comparing a fellow Polish MEP to a Nazi collaborator.
More recently, the group’s leader Syed Kamall sparked outrage when he compared socialists to Nazis in a parliamentary sitting in Strasbourg (he later apologized).
A scientist by profession and member of the Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Zahradil is also the president of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, the pan-European branch of the ECR. He is also a vice chairman of the influential international trade committee and was the ECR’s group leader in 2011.