The European Parliament faces a stormy election for a new president on Tuesday (17 January) after a long-standing coalition of pro-EU parties collapsed just as the crisis-hit bloc confronts a wave of Eurosceptic populism.
While there are at least seven contenders for the job, the main candidates are two Italians and a Belgian seeking to replace Martin Schulz. The German socialist is stepping down as head of the EU’s only elected body to return to politics in his homeland.
Tuesday’s secret ballot by 751 MEPs at the Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg is most likely to be won by Italian politician Antonio Tajani, a former spokesman for Italy’s scandal-plagued ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Tajani, 63, who served as European Commissioner for Industry from 2010 to 2014, is the candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest group in the assembly.
Socialist Gianni Pittella of Italy also has a shot at the top job.
But liberal Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, saw his chances dip after a failed merger last week with Italy’s populist 5 Star Movement.
The winner will be in charge of the European Parliament at the critical time when it has final approval on any deal for Britain’s departure from the European Union, expected in 2019.
In a febrile political climate, the result could also eventually prompt a reshuffle of other top EU jobs, an instability the 28-nation bloc can do without as it tackles crises ranging from Brexit to migration.
‘Influence of populists’
For all but five years of the European Parliament’s history since 1979, the EPP and social democrats have alternated in the presidency under a “grand coalition” aimed at getting laws passed more easily.
But that cozy arrangement has broken down amid a disagreement over who should succeed Schulz after his nearly five years as EU legislative leader.
EPP chief Manfred Weber said the “betrayal” by the other groups which had been expected to back Tajani means that “they are responsible for the growing influence of the populists in this house”.
Pittella however has said he would not accept an EPP “monopoly” of the EU’s top jobs, adding that he also opposed the German-led austerity policies aimed at tackling the eurozone crisis which critics say have wrecked debt-hit Greece and Spain.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier who heads the European Commission, and ex-Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, who leads the European Council of 28 national leaders, are both from the EPP.
Leftist MEPs have warned that they may push for one of those jobs if the European Parliament also ends up in the hands of conservative Tajani.
Holding the key?
The key to the result may now lie with the votes of the smaller populist and anti-EU parties trying to break up the EU from within.
Eurosceptic groups led by Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front made stunning gains in the last European Parliament elections in May 2014, changing the EU’s political landscape.
The anti-EU movement has since gained strength, with Britons voting to leave the bloc in a shock referendum result last June, while across the Atlantic a similar wave of populism took Donald Trump to the US presidency.
Former Belgian prime minister Verhofstadt had initially been seen as having a chance, with his profile newly raised by his role as chief Brexit negotiator for the parliament, a job in which he has strongly pushed for MEPs to have a bigger role in negotiations.
But his campaign has effectively been torpedoed after he said he was considering joining forces with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement after it defected from Farage’s eurosceptic grouping.
The deal – a sign of the importance of the populists’ votes – fell through when Verhofstadt’s Liberal MEPs opposed any such move, especially as it came just days after the Belgian had spoken out about the threat of populism.
Tuesday’s vote could go on for up to four rounds as an absolute majority in the European Parliament is needed to win the presidency.
Here is the list of the candidates ranked according to the size of their grouping in parliament ahead of the vote on Tuesday.
- ANTONIO TAJANI (centre-right)
Italy’s Tajani, 63, a committed pro-European, is standing for the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest single group in the 751-seat assembly, and is therefore tipped to win.
Silver-haired Tajani has solid experience at the top, serving as EU Transport Commissioner in 2008-10 and then as Industry Commissioner in 2010-14, which helps give him an inside view of the workings of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
He entered the European Parliament in 1994 when he was a founding member of controversial premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Recently he has run into heavy flak over his handling of the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” pollution cheating scandal and the Commission’s apparent inability to make VW pay compensation to its European customers similar to the billions demanded in the United States.
- GIANNI PITTELLA (centre-left)
Pittella, 58, is head of the Socialists & Democrats group, the second biggest in the Parliament and which counts a large contingent of Italian MEPs.
The balding Pittella has been an MEP for nearly 20 years but is not widely known, with limited English restricting his media impact.
Critics say he has been overshadowed by Martin Schulz, the German Socialist MEP and outgoing head of the Parliament.
- HELGA STEVENS (Conservative)
Stevens, 48, has made her political career with Belgium’s nationalist NVA party which campaigns for the greatest possible autonomy of the country’s Flemish-speaking north.
The European Conservative and Reformists Group, ranked third in numbers of MEPs, attracted attention after former British premier David Cameron folded his Conservative Party MEPs into it instead of the EPP.
A trained lawyer who is also deaf, Stevens has a formidable political and academic track record, campaigning strongly for people with disabilities.
- GUY VERHOFSTADT (Liberal)
Former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt is an ardent defender of the European project known for his impassioned pleading of the cause and biting put-downs for those who cannot see the European Union light – particularly his parliamentary nemesis, Eurosceptic Nigel Farage of Britain’s UKIP.
Parliament named Verhofstadt, 63, as its Brexit negotiator last year and he promised MEPs they would play a key role in the expected difficult negotiations with London.
He has been in the running to head the European Commission several times, most notably in 2004 when Britain, among others, shot down his candidacy.
- ELEONORA FORENZA (radical left)
Forenza, 40, another Italian, is a leading figure on the left in the European Parliament. She was elected an MEP in 2014 and was chosen last month as the candidate for the grouping European United Left-Nordic Green Left.
- JEAN LAMBERT (Green)
Lambert, 66, is an MEP for the British Green Party elected for the first time in 1999.
She campaigned strongly against Brexit and says that once Britain leaves the European Union, she will continue to work as a champion of democracy around the world.
- LAURENTIU REBEGA (far-right)
Romanian MEP Rebega, 40, is the candidate of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group which is also home to Marine Le Pen’s National Front party.
The Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group, of which British Eurosceptic and Brexit champion Nigel Farage was a leading light, has not so far put forward a candidate.
The final list of candidates will be published at 1600 GMT on Monday.