So much for the comeback of real politics and the end of backdoor deals, pre-decided votes and cosmetic debates at the European Parliament (EP). The Italian Antonio Tajani, EPP Vice President and former EU Commissioner for Transport and Industry under Barroso is the new President – and is already raising questions over the EP’s ability to keep up the prominence it had gained under Schulz.
Tajani’s presidency came as ALDE Chair Guy Verhofstadt withdrew from the race, leaving the competitor S&D party side-lined in exchange for a last-minute alliance sealed by a pro-European deal with the EPP. The only shadow of any competitive spirit, in fact, was the S&D’s public accusation that ALDE had performed a “political somersault” (and the latter’s response), while the actual election boiled down to the inevitable formality of a fourth round of voting last night.
The EP failed to break the EU’s old-boys club glass ceiling, and cannot be expected to change much with Tajani’s election. He pleaded to be an impartial President rather than a quasi-Prime Minister, protecting the institution in agreement with Council and Commission, rather than promoting it with a manifesto.
The biggest change is the EPP-ALDE axis, which not only will succeed the S&D-EPP Grand Coalition and play out shortly in the election of vice-presidents and some Committee Chairs, but also gives to the ECR group more weight vis-à-vis an isolated S&D, now in opposition, and – according to their agreement – may bring about “inter-institutional reflection” on the EU’s future (possibly even a Convention), focusing on the priorities of counter-terrorism, trade, employment, environment, digital agenda, Brexit, and migration. It remains to be seen how the credibility of ALDE’s chair Verhofstadt will survive, after his show of ideological adaptability as he tried to enlist Italy’s Five Star Movement before dealing with the EPP.
The election also puts all EU presidencies in EPP hands, a situation that could last a couple of years – like in 2009-2011 – or put pressure on another president to step down. This is unlikely though, as rumours having Juncker leave his post along with Schulz quickly waned (with the exception of fantasies about Verhofstadt’s long game to take his helm) and there is (yet) no credible competitor for Donald Tusk, who faces confirmation next May amidst attacks from his home country. The EP’s prominence in the institutional triangle could also weaken until the next elections.
Indeed, Tajani can hardly be deemed a path-breaker. His weight as an Italian or founding member of Berlusconi’s (now struggling) Forza Italia party should also not be overstated – his battles to return to Italian politics have largely been lost, while his strong network and experience in Brussels have shaped him more into an EU political animal.
Overall, the new EP President may be, as the Italian expression goes, a good ‘ferryman’ to sail the institution to the next European elections avoiding storms. The problem is, storms are inevitable: before 2019, the EU will have to make it through Brexit negotiations, the beginning of Trump’s Presidency and general elections amidst populist rises in several member states, including its biggest three – a difficult task without a strong and political institution.