By Jeremy Hawkins
STRASBOURG, Jan. 17 (Xinhua) -- As Antonio Tajani takes over the role of President of the European Parliament following his election on Tuesday, filling the office vacated by Martin Schulz, the Italian conservative will be seeking to assure his colleagues and European citizens that he will usher new energy into the institution.
"Change" was the watchword during the Presidential election campaign, with nearly all six candidates for the post making a claim to bringing change to the institution and to Europe. For many, this was code for the end of what has been known as "The Grand Coalition," a power-sharing agreement between the two largest political groups, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Group (S&D), and the European People's Party Group (EPP), that has held sway over the hemicycle since 2014.
Ostensibly a power-sharing agreement between the two parties, the Grand Coalition has faced accusations of going beyond the orchestration of a Presidency for the European Parliament alternating between the EPP and S&D, extending into back room power dealing on a variety of issues. Critics have accused outgoing President Martin Schulz, formerly head of S&D, with using the coalition to broker agreements behind closed doors, gaining visibility and autonomy for the Parliament, but at the expense of transparency and democratic principles.
When Socialist Schulz announced in November that he would not stand for reelection, choosing instead to return to national politics in his native Germany, the coalition should have led to S&D supporting an EPP choice for the Presidency. Instead, in December, the leader of S&D, Gianni Pittella (Italy), simultaneously announced his candidacy and the end of the Grand Coalition.
"We will never again have a grand coalition," Pittella declared in his Tuesday morning presentation of candidacy just prior to the first round of voting, "we will never have a privileged agreement."
It seems that Mr. Pittella's hopes have been dashed two-fold, not only losing his bid for the presidency, but also as a new coalition has formed in the vacuum left by the old one, this time without the socialists.
The news broke with a surprise announcement on Tuesday morning, just before the candidates addressed their colleagues, when President Schulz informed the hemicycle that Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), had withdrawn his candidacy that had been confirmed just the evening prior. Applause broke out among the right wing ranks of the chamber.
Between the Monday evening sitting and Tuesday morning's vote, EPP and ALDE had negotiated a new, supposedly pro-European coalition, inviting other groups to join.
"This is a first important step in the construction of a pro-European coalition to reform and strengthen our union, which is absolutely necessary," explained Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and European Parliamentary representative on Brexit, in a Tuesday morning press release from the ALDE group.
The coalition agreement purports to address a wide range of issues to help save the Europe against multiple threats trying to "destroy" the Union, with Manfred Weber (Germany), EPP President, characterizing the agreement as "content-based" and "positive" on pro-European policies.
Crucially, however, ALDE's press release indicates that as part of the agreement, both groups would back the EPP candidate for President, explaining Guy Verhofstadt's last minute withdrawal from the race, as well as what eventually became President Tajani's decisive win.
If Verhofstadt appeared sheepish in the moment when President Schulz announced the ALDE leader's decision to quit the race, it may be due to his reputation for speaking frankly - and loudly - in favor of a transparent, accountable, and fully democratic European Parliament and European Union, which appears contradictory to the closed-door deal making with which such a coalition is associated.
This new coalition may prove more difficult to manage, though, for President Tajani, a former European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship. The conservative politician with reputation for strong commitments to the business sector, once a spokesperson for controversial and eventually convicted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has made attempts to show personal integrity and ethics. Notably, he refused the so-called "Golden Handshake" at the end of his time at the European Commission by refusing the 468,000-euro(about 501,000 U.S. dollars), three-year transitional allowance normally given to outgoing Commissioners.
Displays of personal integrity will not be enough, however, to easily win parliamentary votes without the support of the second largest political group in the Parliament, S&D, unless more political groups join the EPP-ALDE coalition. Likewise, accusations of back-room dealing are likely to continue from both the hard right and hard left political groups, calling into question Tajani's commitment to transparency.
The President's close ties to former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, under fierce criticism for conflicts of interest since taking a high-ranking position in 2016 with investment bank Goldman Sachs, could lead to more skepticism about Tajani's claims to want to represent all Europeans as President of the European Parliament.
Populist leaders and Euroskeptic politicians are likely to use President Tajani's election and the new EPP-ALDE as fodder for renewed attacks on the credibility of the Parliament and other European Union institutions. With another last minute deal clinching the presidential elections, the question does come to bear: is this Brussels politics as usual? It will be up to President Tajani and his coalition colleagues to demonstrate that this partnership can, despite appearances, still lead to a freer and fairer Europe.