A new President for the European parliament
The European Parliament opens for the second half of its current legislature in the Strasbourg Parliament. The legislature began its life after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014. Its priorities for the next two and a half years will range from immigration, the digital market, terrorism, Brexit, and the rise of Populism in Europe.
A new President
The Parliament’s first plenary session was the election of its next president to replace Martin Schulz who leaves Brussels to continue his political career in his native Germany. Thus on Tuesday, 17 January, the EU Parliament in Strasbourg elected a new president, the Italian Antonio Tajani. Whereas Martin Schulz represented the left-leaning Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Antonio Tajani belongs to the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).
A day before the election, seven candidates had been presented. However just minutes before the start of the election, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) leader Guy Verhofstadt, probably the most well-known contender, withdrew his candidacy having reached an agreement with the PPE to support Antonio Tajani. The fact that there was an electoral race, and such an unpredictable and fiercely fought one at that, was a controversial turn of events.
The end of the "grand coalition"
For many years, the EPP and S&D who represent the two largest political forces in the European Parliament have honoured a political pact whereby a presidential candidate is drawn from each of their two voting constituencies every two and a half years. Accordingly, in the previous legislature, Martin Schulz shared the five-year Presidency with his Polish EPP counterpart, Jerzy Buzek.
The intention behind this informal political agreement was to protect pro-EU parties and block attempts by EU-sceptic MEPs to seize control. Under the pact, the new presidency should have automatically passed to an EPP MEP after Martin Schulz, but instead the Socialists chose to disband the agreement and instead chose Gianni Pittella to fight a presidential campaign on behalf of the S&D.
The failure of the two major parties to maintain an informal agreement to share the Parliamentary legislature presidency offers us a glimpse into another reality facing the European Parliament as a whole.
The underlying problem is not just with the presidency, but the so-called "grand coalition"; a de facto alignment between the EPP and S&D (and to some extent the liberals of ALDE) in order to push forward legislation. Acting in coalition, the two parties would give the green light to Jean-Claude Juncker or his commissioners, as well as all agreeing major legislative initiatives. They acted in concert to oppose the nationalist, populist and Eurosceptic forces. But this “agreement” has gone down the drain with the exit of Martin Schulz and the candidacy of Gianni Pittella.
A change in leadership style ?
Schulz demonstrated the importance of the President’s figure, and his leadership strengthened the role of the Parliament. Martin Schulz managed to unite the S&D ranks and with his charismatic personality achieved a prominence until then unknown for the European Parliament. Nevertheless it is perhaps time for a change in leadership style. In the European bubble it is reckoned that Antonio Tajani is well placed to make such a transition. He has himself affirmed that "The European Parliament does not need a strong president; we need a good speaker and a strong Parliament".
In a moment of evident fragility of the EU Institutions, the European Parliament has to play a fundamental role: to bring European issues closer to the citizen. MEPs are elected by citizens, and they should maintain dialogue with their constituencies so that democracy is strengthened.
This will involve an image of Europe made up of “the constant interplay between heaven and earth”, that reflects “openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe”, while representing Europe’s practical and concrete ability “to confront situations and problems”, Pope Francis stated during his visit to the EP in November 2014. “The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements.” The EU is facing now numerous challenges, and its leaders must not forget that the motto of the Europe is “United in Diversity.”