In defiance of European Council, Parliament elects Italian Socialist as new president

David-Maria Sassoli from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament Strasbourg, France, 03 July 2019. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

The European Parliament elected Socialist David-Maria Sassoli as its new president and picked its extended leadership on Wednesday (3 July), after EU leaders trashed out a surprise package deal for the EU top jobs during a marathon summit the previous day.

From a former Italian journalist to another: S&D candidate David Sassoli, a long-time member of the European Parliament and former vice-president of the chamber, succeeds  Antonio Tajani as the head of the institution.

The Parliament, holding its inaugural plenary session in Strasbourg this week, is revolting because the European Council’s decision on top jobs did not take into consideration the position of the chamber.

The election of the Italian Socialist MEP, despite a suggestion from EU leaders that the post should go to Bulgaria’s Sergei Stanishev as part of the overall package, made clear that Eastern Europeans miss out completely on the distribution of the EU’s top jobs. Stanishev was not even put forward as a candidate by the S&D group.

After months of negotiations, EU leaders agreed on Tuesday (2 July) a “top jobs” package with German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen nominated as European Commission president, outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as president of the European Council; IMF chief Christine Lagarde as the head the European Central Bank, and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell nominated as the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

EU leaders agree on top job picks but trouble already looms

The European Council finally agreed on a pick for the Commission presidency and rallied behind Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday (2 July). But it sets up a potentially ugly encounter with the European Parliament, which might not sanction her appointment.

“The European Parliament is an independent and autonomous body,” outgoing president  Tajani pointed out at the start of the session and asked the members to “vote independently”, without respecting any indication from outside, in a clear reference to the indications coming from the European Council.

MEPs elected Sassoli with 345 votes in the second secret ballot, trumping over Greens candidate Ska Keller (119), ECR’s Jan Zahradil (160) and GUE/NGL’s Sira Rego (43) after no candidate got an absolute majority in the first round.

Sassoli, who is not well known outside of his home country, told MEPs during his bid that he decided to run because “Europe will be stronger only with a Parliament which plays a more important role.”

Founding fathers’ values

In his first speech before the chamber, the newly elected president appealed to the values of the founding fathers of the EU. “We are the children and grandchildren of those who managed to find the antidote to the nationalism that poisoned our history,” Sassoli said.

“Nothing is possible without men, but nothing is lasting without institutions,” he stressed, paraphrasing Frenchman Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers.

Gianni Pittella, the former S&D chief, expressed satisfaction with Sassoli’s election.

“It is a source of pride for Italy to confirm itself at the head of the representative institution of 500 million European citizens,” Pittella said. “In a moment where growing nationalism is the wrong answer, an enhanced EU Parliament will be able to impose itself on the selfishness of the states with an agenda of democratic and solidarity reforms”.

Sassoli himself also defended the need to reinforce the role of the European Parliament.

The institution needs to be strengthened “to relaunch the process of integration, changing our Union and being able to come forward with real responses to the needs of our people,” Sassoli said.

Members of the Parliament need to make sure that the institution “can play a leading role in a fully fledge European democracy,” he insisted, “protect the independence” of European citizens.

The need to reform the Dublin asylum system for stronger solidarity in managing migration, a more ambitious environmental policy to tackle the challenges that climate change creates and response to young people claims are among the new president’s priorities.

Ahead of his election, Sassoli said his door was open to discussing any issue as he considers that talking to everybody is vital to overcome the challenges Europe is facing.

“Europe still has a lot to say if we speak up together,” Sassoli said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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