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Centre-right politician Antonio Tajani was elected the new president of the European Parliament on Tuesday after defeating his socialist rival, a fellow Italian, in a daylong series of votes.
The new speaker, 63, a former EU commissioner and an ally of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, succeeds German Social Democrat Martin Schulz at a time of crisis for the European Union. Britain wants a divorce deal that needs the legislature’s blessing while old adversary Russia and old ally the United States both pose new threats to EU survivors holding together.
Schulz’s tenure saw close cooperation with the centre-right head of the EU executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, but ended with recriminations over the end of a left-right grand coalition.
That could spell trouble for the smooth passage of EU laws on a range of issues. And the win for Tajani, who beat centre-left leader and fellow Italian Gianni Pittella by 351 votes to 282 in a fourth-round runoff, gives the right a lock on three pivotal EU political institutions.
That has stirred some calls for change from either Juncker at the European Commission or Donald Tusk, who chairs the European Council of national leaders.
However, there is no clear consensus for such changes.
Tajani, mindful of the scars left by an unusually bruising battle over a post which can be a powerful influence on which EU rules are made, promised to be “a president for all of you”.
His eventual victory came with backing from pro-EU liberals as well as from the ruling conservative parties of Britain and Poland, both of them sharply critical of the EU’s failings.
They bristle at the EU impinging on national sovereignty and see it as bureaucratic and wasteful.
Tajani began a day of voting with a major advantage by making a coalition with the liberals, whose leader Guy Verhofstadt pulled out to form a common front against anti-EU populists.
Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and leading European federalist who is the parliament’s point man on Brexit negotiations, highlighted the challenges the EU faces in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. The latter predicted this week that more countries would follow Britain’s example and leave the bloc.
The centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, the second biggest after the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, had previously agreed, when 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.
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.
Reacting to a call from Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday for Britain to keep extensive free access to the EU market while shedding many of its obligations, Verhofstadt said she was offering an “illusion” and dealing in “threats”.