Helsinki - Europe's main right-wing parties have chosen German MEP Manfred Weber to lead them into next year's European election campaign -- perhaps giving him a shot at the EU's most powerful post.
Weber -- an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- won the backing of 79.2 percent of delegates of the European People's Party (EPP) meeting in Helsinki on Thursday, easily beating former Finnish premier Alexander Stubb's 20 percent.
If the EPP retains its position as the largest group in the European Parliament after the May election, Weber will be in a strong position to bid to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.
But some polls are predicting the EPP could lose its crown under pressure from populists on both left and right, or the leaders of EU member states -- who will have the final say -- might decide not to appoint a party candidate at all.
Nevertheless, the candidacy is a key prize in the horse-trading for top jobs that will follow EU elections on May 26 next year.
Also in the mix are plum spots to lead the European Council -- which represents national governments -- the European Parliament, the European Central Bank and the bloc's foreign policy.
Little known in Germany, Weber has a veteran insider's knowledge of EU institutions but little experience in government in his homeland.
- 'Protect our values' -
The 46-year-old former businessman was in the Bavarian state parliament from a young age before heading to Europe without ever holding national responsibility.
He is a discreet figure, working quietly to build networks of influence in Brussels and Strasbourg.
In his final speech before Thursday's vote, he took a swipe at critics who have accused him of pandering to anti-immigrant and far-right parties with some of his past comments on the Islamic headscarf and European identity.
Speaking fondly of his home village in Bavaria, in Germany's conservative Roman Catholic south, Weber said Christianity was the "one thing in common" across Europe.
"When I use this picture I am heavily attacked in social media... when I recall the Christian heritage of this continent, that this sounds so old-fashioned, so conservative, so backward looking," he said.
"I tell you I don't care. I think it is important to describe the fundamental values of this continent. We are proud of this and we will protect these values."
On Wednesday, both Weber and Stubb sought to avoid confrontation in their only campaign debate and stayed clear of the most painful subject of all: the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the EPP ranks.
Orban and his Fidesz party are accused of trampling over European values, particularly through strict anti-migration policies and repeated clashes with Brussels over human rights issues.
- 'Farage in every country' -
Weber, who leads the EPP group in the European Parliament, had received the key nods of Merkel and the head of France's centre-right Republicans party, Laurent Wauquiez.
He was also counting on Austria's right-wing Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and on Orban to rally to his cause, and they duly delivered in speeches before the 758 delegates.
Other leading EPP members, however, warned of the danger of populism and nationalism. In very pointed remarks, EU Council president Donald Tusk tackled Orban -- without naming him.
"If you don't like the free press and NGOs, if you tolerate xenophobia, homophobia, nationalism and anti-Semitism, you are not a Christian Democrat," Tusk declared.
"If you want to replace the Western model of liberal democracy with an Eastern model of 'authoritarian democracy'," you are not a Christian Democrat.
EPP vice president and the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier also stood up for the party's European federalist instincts and against the lure of euroscepticism.
"We'll have to fight against those who want to demolish Europe, with their populist deceit, with their attacks against the European project," Barnier said.
"There is now a Farage in every country, in every country," he warned, referring to the anti-EU British MEP and champion of Brexit Nigel Farage.
By Céline Le Prioux