While the UK has been going round in circles, team EU is refreshed and ready to go

THE results are in and the European Parliament has a new President in the form of David Sassoli, an MEP from Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party. Sassoli, of the Socialists and Democrats group in the Parliament will serve for two and a half years, then an MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party will pick up the baton. The S&D is the second-largest group, the EPP the largest, and so the mill wheel of parliament keeps democracy flowing along.

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First published in The National, 04 July 2019

We had four candidates – notably none from the EPP or Guy Verhofstadt’s Renew Europe (formerly ALDE), which suggests they’d agreed to sit this one out and instead signed up for the wider compromise on other institutional posts. Ska Keller was first up on the Parliamentary floor – I’ll sound biased here because Ska is part of my group, Greens/EFA, but her speech on the need for an ambitious Parliament willing to take drastic action on climate change captured the zeitgeist perfectly.

Next up, Sira Rego for the left-wing GUE took no prisoners, using her speech to include a dig at the Italian government’s anti-refugee actions in the Mediterranean. Manners take a back seat when the lives of the most vulnerable people are being reduced to numbers.

Then the man of the moment, Sassoli. “The EU can only be strong when the European Parliament is strong.” Sassoli is well-kent in his native Italy, where he cut his teeth on journalism before making the switch to politics, and in his role as Vice-President in the previous mandate became well-liked and respected by his colleagues.

Finally, up stood Jan Zahradil, of the European Conservatives and Reformists and the only candidate for one of these “top jobs” from an Eastern, non-euro state – in this case, the Czech Republic.

Silence in the chamber as we all fill in our ballot papers. The European Parliament President needs to win a majority of 50% +1 in order to win outright. Sassoli 325, Zahradil 162, Ska 133 and Rego 42 – all short of the necessary votes.

So off to round two, along with a fresh group of MEPs for the tellers. Sassoli got 345 in the second round (out of 667 votes) – cue the applause and a solid speech addressing climate change, international solidarity, and supporting the EU values of compromise, working together, and tackling the world’s challenges collectively.

I wrote last week that there was heated debate surrounding the best way to make the EU institutions as democratic as possible, and outgoing President Antonio Tajani used his farewell speech to highlight that the European Parliament should choose its own President, being an autonomous body and all. However others in the member state capitals and in the Council would disagree, and believe that the various top roles should be more linked to try and achieve geographic and political, and indeed gender, balance.

While these intentions are good, the execution is… not quite there yet. I’m not sure the last few weeks of horsetrading were the most edifying spectacle. The election of the Commission President should be a negotiation between the MEPs (as representatives of the voters) and the Council (as representatives of the governments), not just putting a leading candidate on a list few voters are aware of and claiming it as a mandate.

But, the process is almost over and we have a nominee or appointee for every role, and I can live with all of them.

Commission President nominee is German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, a close ally of Angela Merkel and – if elected by the European parliament week after next – the first-ever female Commission President. While some might say von der Layen is a bit too forthright – she memorably described Vote Leave as a “burst bubble of hollow promises… inflated by populists” and noted “They had promised that Britain would benefit from Brexit” and that Brexit would be “the worst possible start” for negotiating the future UK-EU relationship, perhaps that’s exactly what the Commission needs.

Christine Lagarde – pushed heavily by French President Macron – is a solid candidate for European Central Bank President, with her background as Chair of the International Monetary Fund and the first woman in charge of France’s economic policy.

Another firm opponent of no-deal, she has the authority to say there would be “dire consequences… in terms of reduced growth, an increase in the [budget] deficit and a depreciation of the currency”.

Charles Michel, European Council President, says that no-deal would be bad for the EU too, but also that it’s preferable to re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement.

“The British Parliament’s demands on the backstop would weaken the economic development of Europe, a risk for our businesses and our jobs.” But he also floated the idea that there’s room for flexibility. Will the UK Government take the hint?

Finally, our new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is Josep Borrell Fontelles, who famously said sadly that “the UK is not a good member of the club and they’ve never hidden that from us.”

Ultimately, while the UK is tied up in knots, the EU has been getting on with business. The world does not revolve around Westminster, and those MPs and their cheerleaders who believe otherwise are about to receive a rude awakening.

Team EU has just refreshed itself at a time when Team Tory UK has never been more divided, dysfunctional and deluded.