The European parliament has a new president: Italian Antonio Tajani, an ally of Silvio Berlusconi and the nominee of the European People’s Party, the main centre-right group in the parliament.
European institutions tend to overuse their titles. The president of the parliament is not to be confused with either the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, or the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker – roughly, the EU’s head of state and head of government, respectively. The president of the parliament is basically the Speaker, although the status of the position is a bit more elevated than that suggests, including some of the ceremonial functions more associated with a head of state.
And like a normal parliamentary Speaker, the president is elected by secret ballot. Three ballots were held, in which none of the six candidates received an absolute majority (or anywhere near it); then a fourth, in which all but the top two candidates were eliminated and Tajani beat the centre-left’s Gianni Pittella (also from Italy), 351 to 282. Another 118 MPs abstained or failed to vote.
For most of the parliament’s existence, it’s been run by an informal coalition of the centre-left and centre-right. A parliamentary term is five years, but the president is only elected for two and a half, conveniently allowing for power sharing. The centre-left’s Martin Schulz has had the gig for the last half term, so it was the centre-right’s turn.
But although Tajani was eventually elected, there was a genuine contest: the centre-left refused to honor the deal, and both sides tried to put together a coalition with the smaller groups. It was the EPP that succeeded, winning over the liberal group, ALDE, and (less formally, but clear from the numbers) the moderate Eurosceptic group, European Conservatives and Reformists.
The total voting strength of those three groups is 349, almost exactly Tajani’s total. Pittella’s final vote is close to the 292 that represents the total of centre-left, Greens and far left. The hard Eurosceptics and the far right, with 82 seats between them, evidently declined to vote in the final round.
It’s no surprise that ECR lined up with the centre-right – although since a quarter of its MPs are from Britain’s Conservative Party, its influence in the next parliament will probably be somewhat reduced. ALDE, however, has in the past tended to lean more to the centre-left. Its leader, Guy Verhofstadt, had tried and failed last week to forge an alliance with Italy’s populist 5-Star Movement. So it was a bit rich for Verhofstadt to claim that linking up with the EPP was a way to make a stand against populism.
Nonetheless, this is the sort of process where no-one really has clean hands, and the basic idea is probably correct: with the age of Trump beginning, this is no time to be letting the likes of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen into the corridors of power. It was important to build the broadest possible coalition of mainstream forces, and since the centre-left wouldn’t come to the party, the liberals did the next best thing.
One could also argue that with the centre-left already securely in the democratic fold, it’s the centre-right that more urgently needs to be tied down. An alliance with the liberals will at least balance the possible influence of ECR and more extreme elements.
Still, the tensions within ALDE are not likely to go away. A number of European countries already have rival liberal parties, one leaning to the right and the other to the left; it’s not impossible that the umbrella group might go the same way.
And there will still be issues that the European parliament seems a long way from resolving: how to marginalise the Eurosceptics in its midst while remaining faithful to democratic principles; how to push the European Commission towards something more like genuine responsible government; and how to marshal Europe’s fractious tribes into some sort of common front in the dangerous new world where we find ourselves. The new president will need a lot of luck.