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Who is the best candidate to steer the European Parliament through stormy seas?

TODAY the European Parliament will begin the process of electing a new Speaker, or President. Usually this would not make waves in Scotland, but this time it could matter hugely to us.

The National

First published in The National, 17 January 2017


Aside from the fact a lot is going on in the world and we could do with a steady hand at the Parliament’s tiller, the Brexit deal (whatever it might be, if Article 50 is triggered and if the negotiations result in a deal at all before the European Parliament elections in 2019) needs approval by a majority of the Parliament. Whoever is elected this week will be at the helm as this vote looms and in the negotiations preceding it.

The Parliament President has historically been low-key, a figurehead responsible largely for the internal workings of the institution. However, with the growth in power of the Parliament the role has been increasingly high-profile, with the outgoing President Martin Schultz having done much to raise its stature. Whoever wins the backing of the majority of MEPs will be a key player in the coming years, and Scotland has a lot at stake.

There are, of course, a number of candidates. Will it be Belgian Liberal Guy Verhofstadt, no stranger to the pages of The National, the man who has been so critical of Nigel Farage and has been vocal on how few obstacles there are to an independent Scotland remaining part of the EU? Or the first of three Italians, Conservative Antonio Tajani, having secured the support of the European Peoples’ Party Group (EPP) nomination? Or maybe British Jean Lambert from the Greens will find herself in the strange position of representing London and overseeing whatever Brexit turns into? The Socialist and Democrat Group (S&D) candidate, Italian Gianni Pitella, is an experienced MEP and President of his group. Not to be underestimated is Belgian Helga Stevens, from the European Conservatives and Reformist Group (ECR). Stevens is President of the European Union of the Deaf, in addition to being a former Belgian senator.

Completing the Italian contingent is Eleonora Forenza, from the snappily-named Confederal Group of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE). A member of Italy’s Communist Refoundation Party, Forenza was elected as part of a left-wing political alliance that supported Greece’s anti-austerity Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for the Presidency of the European Commission. And finally, there’s Romanian Laurentui Rebega, candidate and vice-chair of Marine Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedoms group (ENF). That’s enough about him.

Often there would be an agreement between the EPP and S&D as the two biggest groups – between them they have the numbers to secure any candidate they jointly back – but not this time. Pittella has ruled out such an arrangement. His argument that Tajani’s election would leave the Commission, Council and Parliament under the control, at least nominally, of the EPP is a fair one, but can he secure enough support from the other left-leaning parties, such as a Greens/EFA, GUE and ALDE?

The President is elected based on nominations – usually candidates are proposed by political groups, but they can also be nominated by a twentieth of MEPs. That’s 38, if you’re counting.

The President is elected by an absolute majority of votes cast, not a majority of MEPs, so if you abstain or spoil your ballot, it counts for nothing. If nobody wins a majority, the lowest drops out, and there can be a maximum of four ballots. If there’s a tie at the fourth ballot, then the older candidate wins.

Most pundits think it will be Tajani, a former EU Transport Commissioner, current vice-president of the Parliament with a lot of EU experience. His ties to former PM Silvio Berlusconi, however, may be less useful.

Verhostadt is certainly in with a shout, but as Parliament’s chief negotiator in the upcoming Brexit talks he already has a lot on his plate, and details on who would take on the role if he were elected have not been forthcoming. Also, Verhofstadt has blotted his copybook amongst some commentators with his ambitious decision to extend the hand of friendship to the Italian 5Star Movement, suggesting they join the Liberal Group – which would, had it come off, created a bigger but very unstable group and was rejected by his own group colleagues.

But he’s not Scotland’s only friend in Europe. As quoted in Common Space, Jean Lambert reiterated that Scotland and Northern Ireland’s voices should be heard regarding Brexit. The Greens/EFA (European Free Alliance) group has been consistent in supporting Scotland’s right to remain in the EU – of course, it probably helps that a couple of SNP MEPs happen to be members of the EFA… So, by the time you read this, MEPs will be getting ready to greet the new President who’ll be steering the good ship European Parliament during the turbulent near-future – Brexit, the rise of the right, the European elections, and of course the day-to-day running of the committees, votes and budgets. Voting takes place via a secret ballot, so diplomacy prevents me from announcing who I’ll be supporting. Regardless of who wins, I certainly look forward to working closely with them to promote Scotland’s interests. Watch this space!