Few could begrudge Gianni Pittella, leader of the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament, his decision to leave the EU capital to stand for the Italian Senate. Trading in grey Brussels days for the warmth of Campania is an understandable decision to make but is it a politically shrewd one?
Most opinion polls have Pittella’s party, the Partido Democratico-led governing coalition, ten points behind Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Lega Nord coalition, and tied with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.
If Pittella has been promised a senior ministerial job by Party Secretary and former PM Matteo Renzi, meanwhile, he certainly wasn’t about to tell journalists.
That, perhaps, explains why Pittella was killed with kindness by the Italian press corps at his ‘farewell’ press conference today. Most hacks appeared to be slightly bemused by his decision.
Had he stayed in Brussels, Pittella could have expected to succeed fellow countryman Antonio Tajani, who has himself been earmarked by Berlusconi to be the country’s next prime minister, as president of the Parliament.
Pittella insists that his imminent departure is a ‘farewell but not a goodbye’.
“It was not an easy choice… I want to lend a hand to defeat the anti-European forces on the right,” he told reporters.
He also vowed to “promote the European cause in the Italian parliament”, if elected.
While Pittella heads home to fight the good European fight and “inject pro-Europeanism into the campaign”, his deputy Udo Bullman will take over the reins of the Parliament’s second largest group until the poll on 4 March.
Bullman and Slovenian deputy Tanja Fajon are then likely to fight out a formal leadership contest, assuming Pitella is elected.
Germany already boasts the Parliament’s top civil servant, Secretary General Klaus Welle, while Manfred Weber leads the European People’s Party faction.
Having Bullman, an economics specialist who is well liked and respected by his peers, in charge of the Socialists would give them the full set.
“I’ve stuck it out for 19 years,” said Pittella. Whether that was subtle confirmation that enduring 19 bleak mid-winters in Brussels was quite enough for him remains to be seen…
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