Liberals and anti-Europeans hold key to Parliament presidency

The European Parliament in Strasbourg. [European Parliament]

The votes of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), as well as the ultimate stance of the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom group (ENF) will determine today’s election (17 January) of the next European Parliament president, EURACTIV has learned. euractiv.com reports from Strasbourg.

The candidates for the next presidency of the European Parliament are entering the home straight; in the last two days they have begun making “personal phone calls to several MEPs”.

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Outgoing president Martin Schulz will chair the election of the new president which will start today at 09:00 in Strasbourg. According to estimates, a total of four secret ballots will take place and the procedure might last until 21:00 in the evening.

The process

According to the rules of procedure, in order to become president, a candidate must secure an absolute majority of MEPs’ votes.

If there is no winner after the first round, a second and even a third round will follow with the same candidates, or new nominees.

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In the event that no candidate ensures an absolute majority in the third round, a fourth ballot based on simple majority will take place between the two highest-scoring candidates.

But according to sources, the results of the first round, where MEPs are expected to vote in line with their parties, will determine to a great extent the next moves of the political groups.

“Secret losses” are expected in the second and third round, the same Parliament sources explained.

The balances

EPP candidate Antonio Tajani’s camp is optimistic about the result of the vote and they bet on ALDE’s support.

S&D sources made it clear that Socialist candidate Gianni Pittella would not step down from the process and would go till the end, meaning he will seek a fourth round.

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It’s estimated that Pittella will ensure the support of the vast majority of the MEPs from the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) as well as the Greens/EFA.

Sources said that there were some communist MEPs, for instance, the Portuguese, in the European Left that would not go for the Italian MEP and would most probably abstain. There are, also, some Greens who would not vote for Pittella.

S&D sources told EURACTIV that if the political forces on the right of the political spectrum vote based on their ideological beliefs, then Tajani would definitely be the big winner.

On the other hand, EPP sources insisted that their party will not accept votes from Eurosceptics.

EPP leader Manfred Weber recently said his party would not rely on anti-European votes but noted that the vote was a secret ballot, and thus, he could not be held responsible for the choices of MEPs from different parties.

He also attacked Pittella, saying that he negotiates with the communists, and criticised ALDE’s candidate Guy Verhofstadt for having tried to form an alliance with Beppe Grillo.

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Farage: “Tajani is more pragmatic”

However, socialist officials told EURACTIV that Tajani hadn’t ruled out, at least in public, the possibility of accepting support from racist forces. The same sources went further, stressing that Tajani “is currently working” with Eurosceptics.

They believe that extreme-right forces claim publicly that they will abstain but “they change their rhetoric” backstage.

“We risk having a president elected by one who led the Brexit campaign (Nigel Farage) and another one who wishes to dismantle Europe (Marine Le Pen),” the source said.

Asked for comment, an EPP official reiterated that there was no way for Tajani to accept such votes and that “all scenarios are open in such an event”.

Earlier, the leader of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group (EFDD) Nigel Farage stated that Tajani seemed “more pragmatic”. Asked whether that meant he supported the EPP candidate, Farage replied, “I didn’t say that.”

Tajani is expected to get significant support from the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), as well as from parts of ALDE and EFDD.

ECR candidate Helga Stevens told EURACTIV that she got quite positive “cross-party” feedback for her candidacy and she expects votes from other groups as well.

Asked to confirm her group’s intention to back Tajani, she replied, “Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

Leftist MEPs also suspect an “under the table deal” between Tajani and the Italian 5 Star Movement, considering the fragile relations between Grillo and Italy’s Democratic Party. However, no other political group confirmed this.

ALDE’s role

One scenario being circulated in Strasbourg suggests that Verhofstadt will step down and the big question will then be the distribution of the votes of his 70 MEPs.

Sources from GUE-NGL said that if the liberals’ votes were equally distributed to the socialists and the EPP, then Tajani would have remarkable chances of landing the top job.

However, ALDE’s position is still unclear, and many Parliament officials avoided making predictions.

Left “not convinced” by the Grand Coalition

Gabriele Zimmer, the leader of GUE-NGL, told EURACTIV that she was satisfied with the procedure as in her words the MEPs will, for the first time, be able to discuss the election openly and vote democratically for the next president of the European Parliament. “It is a victory for democracy,” she said.

She noted that the announced end of the Grand Coalition, in which the EPP and S&D groups decided who would be the leader and prepared the line of succession, was “good news” for the leftists, because this procedure had excluded her political group from the decision-making process.

“But we have to build up trust. Not all people are convinced that the Grand Coalition is over,” she said.

Asked if Eurosceptics could play a decisive role in the vote, she replied, “If Tajani and the EPP are willing to be elected by the ENF and other individuals from the extreme-right, it could be possible.”

“The results will most probably be too close in the last round, and yes, it is possible to have a president elected by extreme-right MEPs,” the German MEP concluded.

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