The European Union’s centre-right grouping yesterday (13 December) elected Antonio Tajani as its candidate to replace Social Democrat Martin Schulz as President of the European Parliament, a move that could increase calls for a reshuffle of other top EU jobs.
Tajani, a former Commissioner, is a member of the rightist Forza Italia party and a close ally of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Besides Tajani, three party MEPs were candidates in the “primary”: Former French minister Alain Lamassoure, Ireland’s Mairead McGuinness and Slovenia’s Alojz Peterle.
Tajani was seen as a controversial candidate among his other EPP contenders. He served as the European Commissioner for Transport and then for Industry under José Manuel Barroso, and questions have been raised about his implication in the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
The Socialists & Democrats, the second biggest grouping in Parliament, have said the election of a conservative president would unsettle the EU’s balance of power by giving the European People’s Party (EPP) the presidencies of all three major EU bodies.
Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker runs the European Commission and Poland’s Donald Tusk chairs EU summits as president of the European Council. Both are EPP members.
Tusk’s own mandate expires at the end of May, but he is expected to want to stay on, despite opposition from the Polish government, controlled by his arch-enemy Jarosław Kaczyński.
Juncker has three years left in office, although his position has been weakened by Britain’s vote to leave the EU and by a failed plan to manage last year’s refugee crisis with mandatory quotas of refugees for member states.
As the candidate of the largest grouping in the chamber, Tajani looks likely to become the next parliament chief, although a win is not certain as the EPP has only 215 of 751 seats.
The S&D, ending a decade-long alliance with the EPP, has presented its own candidate for the presidency, Gianni Pittella, an Italian lawmaker close to Italy’s most recent Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.
Pittella said his aim was to reduce the appeal of growing anti-establishment movements that prosper by depicting moderate parties of all political hues as pursuing the same agenda.
He also said the grand coalition between the EPP and the Socialist & Democrats was over and could not be re-established,
But a spat between Europe’s two main political families may, in fact, give anti-system and anti-EU groups a boost.
A divided parliament may find it more difficult to pass legislation and such stalemate may strengthen eurosceptic parties such as Britain’s UKIP, France’s Front National and Italy’s Five Star movement.