And the winner is … a backroom deal (and Antonio Tajani)
STRASBOURG — Antonio Tajani, of the European People’s Party, was elected the 29th president of the European Parliament on Tuesday night, propelled to victory by a partnership between his center-right group and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
“Today a new era begins,” a jubilant Tajani declared at a news conference, minutes after leaving the chamber. “I’ll be president for everybody.”
He was elected on the fourth and final ballot — essentially a last, knock-out round that underscored the unusually competitive contest for the presidency, and highlighted the searing acrimony over the deal-making that settled the outcome and now stands to reshape the balance of leadership in the Parliament.
Tajani’s victory handed the EPP control of the leadership of all three EU institutions — the Parliament, the Commission and the Council — and represented a crushing defeat for the once-predominant Social Democrats, who have seen their influence crumble across the Continent.
In the end, Tajani won 351 votes, well ahead of Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, with 282 votes.
Setback for the Socialists
Tajani, a veteran MEP and longtime spokesman and consigliere to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was virtually guaranteed victory after an 11th-hour deal was hatched between Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the EPP group, and Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal ALDE leader, who withdrew his own candidacy for president in favor of the new alliance.
Still, Tajani’s victory was not secured until the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group threw their support behind him. In some ways, the trio of political groups make for odd bedfellows, but their alliance stands to reshape governance of the EU, which for a dozen years or more has hinged on power-sharing between the EPP and the S&D.
On civil liberties and social issues, the Parliament will likely be steered by a robust left-leaning majority, while on economic, fiscal and trade issues, the majority will tilt decidedly to the right.
In exchange for Verhofstadt’s endorsement of Tajani, the liberals gained control of the powerful Conference of Committee Chairs, and the socialists are likely to see their role in Parliament vastly diminished as they are effectively relegated to opposition status.
For its part, the ECR will retain its one vice presidency position in the leadership but, more broadly, the group stands to enjoy enhanced relevance as the role of the Social Democrats shrinks.
In many ways, Pittella’s defeat mirrored the electoral setbacks that the socialists have faced in national elections across Europe, including in Germany, France and the U.K., and it cast substantial uncertainty over the ability of Pittella, an Italian, to continue leading the group. Privately, many of his rank-and-file members described the outcome of Thursday’s balloting as an unmitigated disaster.
Backroom deals are back
While the new partnership catapulted Tajani into the Parliament presidency, there is a substantial risk of a Pyrrhic victory. At a time when the EU is under assault from populists, the Parliament leadership once again was determined in secret, backroom dealing. And Tajani, who served six undistinguished years as a European commissioner before joining the Parliament in 2014, is precisely the sort of uncharismatic, insider apparatchik that gives the EU its reputation for aloof bureaucracy.
While the outgoing Parliament president, Martin Schulz, brought personality and panache to the job and raised the stature of the Parliament in the process, more than a few officials noted with irony that Schulz’s rise to prominence resulted directly from a fight with Berlusconi, Tajani’s former boss. Berlusconi, in response to criticism from Schulz, said that the German would be perfect to play a Nazi guard in a film about concentration camps. An uproar ensued, and Berlusconi apologized.
While the outcome was ultimately brokered in a behind-the-scenes deal, the election was by far the most competitive in the Parliament’s modern history, with the contours of a deal — and the victor — not known until the final hours. Inevitably, all internal parliamentary leadership decisions, whether in Strasbourg, Berlin or Washington, hinge to a large degree on such horse-trading. That is especially unavoidable in legislatures of countries with multi-party, coalition systems.
The end of the ‘grand coalition’
Pittella’s decision to end the working agreement with the EPP essentially threw the race wide open and prompted Verhofstadt, who leads the fourth-largest group, to sense an opening, jump into the race and make an ill-fated overture to Italy’s anti-establishment 5Stars to join his group. In the end, the liberals could have thrown their lot in with either EPP or S&D, though the EPP as the largest group was a more reliable bet and allowed the wily Verhofstadt to take credit for squirming out of a tough spot.
The unusual competitiveness of the race was evident in bitter criticism of the EPP-ALDE alliance not just by the Social Democrats but also by more right-wing conservatives. The fierceness of the fight was also illustrated by the refusal of lower-tier candidates to capitulate, forcing the election into a fourth and decisive head-to-head round between Tajani and Pittella.
That such a final round was needed raised the prospect that Tajani would start his presidency with a less robust mandate than he had hoped. Some EPP insiders had predicted that a show of force in the first round would yield victory in the second. Instead, Tajani’s rivals battled as long as they could.
At the same time, Tajani’s victory also underscored the extent to which the Parliament presidency is very much an inside job, and how the Parliament leadership election is a little more than a popularity contest among colleagues, some of whom have known each other for decades.
Weber, appearing at a news conference just before noon, declared victory. “It’s a historic day today,” he said. “Tajani will be a president of the whole house, a president of the institution.”
Weber added: “Our approach was always to build bridges and form partnerships. Unfortunately, Pittella and the others wanted to fight, they wanted to separate, to create divisions. The EPP wanted to create bridges.”
Building bridges ain’t easy
It was not immediately clear how Weber and Tajani would bridge some of the sharp policy disagreements between their group and the liberals. For example, the EPP has overwhelmingly supported the fiscal austerity policies championed by Germany in response to the eurozone crisis, while the liberals have been extremely critical of the austerity strategy.
Weber’s positive spin also masked the uneasiness among many EU officials over the EPP taking control of the leadership of all three main EU institutions. That means that the EPP, the political family of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will effectively own Brussels much as the U.S. Republican Party will own Washington after Friday’s inauguration of Donald Trump.
Any criticism or failings of the EU will weigh heavily on the EPP in a year of crucial national elections, including in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
The new alliance also represented a stunning turnabout for Verhofstadt, who just a week earlier had tried to build a coalition with the 5Star movement. That effort quickly imploded as other leaders recoiled at the idea of partnering with one of the insurgent, populist forces that dedicated to destabilizing traditional European politics.
Opponents swiftly attacked Verhofstadt’s pendulum swing, accusing him of naked opportunism.
Jubilations on the right
Leaders of the EPP, for their part, were ecstatic over Tajani’s victory — and particularly over their success in safeguarding the so-called “cordon sanitaire” by which the mainstream political groups have denied any role in leadership for the anti-EU parties.
In defending the alliance between the center-right EPP and the liberal ALDE, they stressed the need for protecting the EU, while acknowledging that the bloc is badly in need of repair – points that were highlighted in a written agreement.
“Europe is in crisis,” the EPP-ALDE agreement stated. “Nationalists and populists of all boards try to destroy the Union from within and from outside … Therefore, the EPP and ALDE – beyond their ideological differences – have decided to work closely together and to offer a common platform as a starting point for this pro-European cooperation. We appeal to all other pro-European forces in the House to join this initiative and to add their ideas and their priorities to our agenda of reform.”
In a statement announcing his withdrawal of his candidacy Tuesday morning, Verhofstadt said he was stepping aside to prevent Parliament for being “weakened.”
“With Trump, with Putin, with many other challenges Europe faces, it is key we cooperate to reform our Union,” Verhofstadt wrote. “This coalition plan is open to all pro-European groups. It’s a coalition of ideas. To change the direction the European Union is heading.”
Fighting to the finish
Pittella did not go quietly. After finishing the first round of voting in distant second place, 91 votes behind Tajani, Pittella continued to urge MEPs to support him. And, in a last-ditch effort to split ALDE, he issued an open letter to colleagues in which he accused Verhofstadt not only of spurning an offer of partnership with the S&D but of hiding the proposal from ALDE members.
In a speech before the voting started, Pittella reiterated his refusal to participate any longer in a partnership with the EPP.
“We will never again have a grand coalition,” Pittella said. “We need clarity. Europe and our democracies need clean divisions between ideas.”
Pittella had worked to build a support base including the Greens and the far-left, but came up far short of the needed votes.
The lower-tier candidates also battled fiercely to the end and Pittella was not the only one to express anger and exasperation at the EPP-ALDE deal.
On Tuesday evening, Syed Kamall, the British leader of the ECR group, issued a statement expressing fury over suggestions that EPP and ALDE would pursue an agenda aimed at further centralization in the EU.
“We agree with the EPP and ALDE that Europe is in crisis, but we cannot accept an agenda that represents more of the failed centralizing approach of the past,” Kamall said. “We are concerned that Mr. Tajani, after promising to be a speaker and not a prime minister of the Parliament, will see this as part of his own mandate. We urge him to distance himself from this statement.”
Other prizes than president
As with any legislative leadership election, the prizes at stake were many jobs that few people know even exist, let alone recognize as trophies worth fighting over.
At the heart of the pact between EPP and ALDE was a plum post that is little-known to the public: president of the Conference of Committee Chairs, which had been held by Jerzy Buzek, a former president of the Parliament, and a member of the EPP. Buzek agreed to step aside, turning over the position to Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish MEP and member of ALDE.
The position is crucial as the Conference of Committee Chairs decides on the political priorities in the Parliament. The president of the CCC will also play a major role in Brexit negotiations by coordinating the work of parliamentary committees tasked with producing reports on how Brexit will impact each committee’s area of jurisdiction.
The agreement between ALDE and EPP, an ALDE spokesman said, also calls on the EPP to strengthen the role of Brexit negotiator, held by Verhofstadt, and to include liberals at meetings of the so-called “G5,” which brings together all the major presidents of the political groups as well as Juncker, and Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
Under the deal, ALDE also stands to get two of the Parliament’s 14 vice presidencies. Finally, the agreement calls on the EPP to “move on key fronts” including proposals for a stronger defense union, improved economic governance and expanded intelligence sharing.
Tajani, who spent recent days diligently calling individual MEPs to secure their backing, stressed his extensive experience, including his recent stint as Parliament vice president.
“I believe in Europe, but we need to change,” Tajani said in a speech ahead of the ballot. “We need a president, not a prime minister, a president who has experience, and I would like to put my 23 years of experience at your disposal.”
Noting the challenges of Brexit, he said: “We will have to defend the rights of Europe.”