Traditionally, the election for the European Parliament’s President has never held much suspense: the two-and-a-half-year term for the speakership of Europe’s directly elected legislature has generally been split between the two largest groups in Parliament (usually the centre-left socialists and the centre-right EPP). Even in the rare cases when liberals or conservatives were elected to the top spot, it was down to an agreement that ensured a solid majority.
2017 saw a rare break from this tradition – and, for the first time, the semblance of an open race. Though the last-minute withdrawal of liberal Guy Verhofstadt and the support of his ALDE group secured the election of the EPP’s Antonio Tajani for the top job, the decision by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) not to honour their 2014 coalition agreement with the EPP meant he faced a real fight from centre-left Italian Gianni Pittella.
What does all this mean? Well, two things.
First of all, we have seen the breakdown of the traditional “grand coalition” between the centre-right and the centre-left in the European Parliament, which may mean a more confrontational and partisan atmosphere in Brussels from now on. The S&D group has been increasingly willing to take strident positions that clash with those of the EPP – expect this to continue.
This will, ironically, reinforce the Parliament’s fringes. If the EPP and the S&D vote together less and less often, it means that one or the other will have to rely not only on the centrist liberal ALDE group, but also either the far left or the eurosceptic rightwing to get texts passed. It may also mean a more contentious European election in 2019.
On the other hand, the election of a Parliament head who no longer commands an overwhelming majority as Martin Schulz did, and who is a less forceful figure than the outgoing German President of the EP, probably means that the European Parliament will be less willing and able to be a “counterweight” to the intergovernmental approach of the Council – weakening the European Parliament overall.
Antonio Tajani has not been universally praised for his work ethic – nor does he see the European Parliament Presidency as a way to counterbalance the Council. He will probably act more as a traditional European-style speaker and less like an EU equivalent of the US House Speaker. This will ultimately empower Group chairs like Manfred Weber, Gianni Pittella and Guy Verhofstadt, who may gain in power while the EP President takes a backseat.
Finally, what does all this mean for Brexit? Well, that’s not quite clear. On the one hand, a more fractious European Parliament could make it more difficult for the EP to come to an agreement on the issue; on the other, a weaker Parliament President and more divided chamber may actually strengthen the Council and EU Member States, if they themselves manage to speak with one voice on the future agreement with the UK.