Merkel changes target in quest for German EU dominance

BERLIN — Get ready for an even more German Europe.

Angela Merkel is considering dropping Germany’s bid for the top job at the European Central Bank and pursuing the presidency of the European Commission instead, according to senior officials in her party. Both jobs will become vacant next year.

“It’s certainly plausible that Germany has an interest because it has not held the Commission president post since Walter Hallstein in 1967,” said Elmar Brok, a veteran center-right MEP who also sits on the executive committee of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

Berlin launched a test balloon on Thursday in the form of an article in the daily Handelsblatt to gauge European reaction to the idea, the party officials said.

Merkel’s preference would be to nominate her economy minister, Peter Altmaier, for the post. A longtime Merkel confidante who served as her chief of staff until last year, Altmaier, 60, worked for the Commission early in his career and speaks several European languages.

An additional candidate is Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, 59, another Merkel ally who was born and grew up in Brussels.

German officials stressed that the deliberations aren’t advanced and that Merkel may drop the plan altogether, depending on the reception across Europe. A decision over what course to pursue could come as soon as a meeting of leaders from both the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, on September 9-10.

Merkel’s rethink was spurred by the likely resistance her preferred ECB candidate, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, would face elsewhere in the eurozone. A monetary hawk deeply skeptical of some of the moves current ECB President Mario Draghi has taken to combat the euro crisis, Weidmann has earned a reputation as a hard-liner.

At a time when Euroskeptic populists control Italy, a country some economists worry could face its own debt crisis in the near future, ramming through Weidmann’s nomination would be difficult and likely counterproductive. France has also voiced reservations about Weidmann, who served as Merkel’s economic adviser until 2011.

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Though Germany has coveted the ECB presidency since the dawn of the euro in the late 1990s, history has shown Berlin can exercise signficant influence over the bank without holding the top position.

That’s because the ECB’s senior leadership is acutely aware of the importance of maintaining German confidence in the euro to keeping the currency bloc intact.

Draghi, for example, regularly consults with Merkel, often in secret, and sought her counsel throughout the euro crisis. The current concern in Berlin is that holding the job outright would only reinforce the caricature of Germany as a financial scold, forcing the rest of the eurozone to dance to its tune.

What’s more, with the euro crisis off the boil and the German economy humming, average Germans pay little attention to the inner workings of the ECB.

The attraction of the Commission presidency to Berlin is that it is a political post with more democratic legitimacy than the ECB job. Whomever Berlin puts forth would be expected to run in the upcoming European Parliament election.

A successful run could help blunt concerns of German bigfooting. Yet those worries wouldn’t evaporate. With Martin Selmayr, Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man, already the Commission’s top civil servant, a German Commission president would inevitably reinforce the impression of German dominance, fair or not.

Another question is whether Merkel would succeed in convincing the rest of the European People’s Party to support her candidate. Doing so could mean shoving aside Manfred Weber, the German leader of the EPP’s parliamentary group.

While Weber is keen to pursue the position and is well liked in the EPP, he lacks the executive experience of either Altmaier or Von der Leyen. He also belongs to the wrong party — the Christian Social Union. If Merkel has her own candidate, it’s unclear why she would hand such a powerful post to the CSU, a party with which she has had deep differences of late.

Philip Kaleta contributed reporting.

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