Italian conservative wins in vote for new EU president

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 3:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 4:29am

Italian centre-right politician Antonio Tajani was elected the new president of the European Parliament on Tuesday after a final round of voting, officials said.

Tajani, an ally of former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, got 351 votes while his socialist rival Gianni Pittella got 282, outgoing leader Martin Schulz said.

“I congratulate you warmly. I wish you good luck as you carry out your mandate,” Schulz said as he shook hands with Tajani.

European Council leader Donald Tusk hailed the importance of a position at the head of the EU’s only elected body at a time of crises in the bloc.

“I congratulate Antonio Tajani as next EP (European Parliament) president and look forward to cooperating. A united, strong EU needs a constructive, effective EP,” Tusk said.

Tajani has benefited from a coalition with the liberals, which aims to curb the influence of anti-EU populists, as well as backing from British and Polish eurosceptics at a time of crisis for a bloc buffeted by Brexit and general disillusion.

The last-minute withdrawal of centrist Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, had strengthened Tajani’s hand and underlined how mainstream, pro-EU parties are trying to keep a grip against a vocal eurosceptic minority.

Verhofstadt, a leading European federalist who is also the Parliament’s point man on Brexit negotiations, highlighted the challenges the EU faces in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President-elect Donald Trump, who predicted this week that more countries would seek to follow Britain’s example and leave the bloc.

The vote has been unusually fraught since the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, the second biggest after the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, broke a grand coalition with the EPP and the liberals in order to field its own candidate to succeed President Martin Schulz.

The S&D had previously agreed, when its candidate Schulz was re-elected in 2014 with EPP backing, to support an EPP candidate this time round. That rift in the mainstream has been seen as giving a potentially greater voice to eurosceptics who have been bolstered by Britain’s referendum vote last year to quit the EU.

Schulz, who is returning to German politics, had worked in the framework of the grand coalition to ease legislation through with centre-right Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

A win for Tajani would now give the EPP control of all three presidencies of the major EU political institutions, raising calls in some quarters for either Juncker or European Council President Donald Tusk to make way for a figure from the left.

However, there is no clear consensus on that happening.

Verhofstadt said of his party’s alliance with the centre-right: “It is a first and important step in the building up of a pro-European coalition ... that is absolutely necessary with Trump, with Putin, with many other challenges Europe faces.”

Parliament will also have to sign off on the exit deal with Britain, probably by late 2018 or early 2019, just as lawmakers are campaigning for an EU-wide legislative election in May 2019.