Italy’s Tajani Picked to Lead EU Parliament Amid Populist Threat

  • Christian Democrat wins day-long vote after pact with Liberals
  • New coalition in assembly produces pro-European manifesto

Antonio Tajani delivers a speech during a session marking the election of the new President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Jan. 17.

Photographer: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images

Antonio Tajani of Italy was elected president of the European Parliament after his Christian Democrats struck a deal with the pro-business Liberals to strengthen the assembly’s role in Brexit, fight populism and seek more free-trade agreements.

Tajani, 63, defeated fellow Italian Gianni Pittella, a Socialist, to lead the European Union assembly until mid-2019. Tajani garnered 351 out of 633 votes on Tuesday evening in Strasbourg, France in the last round of a secret ballot that lasted more than 11 hours and began with six candidates. It marked the first time since 1982 that the election reached the fourth and final stage.

Tajani’s victory puts the bloc’s three top jobs in the hands of the European party dominated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe is facing myriad challenges from Britain’s EU exit to criticism by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. The Christian Democrats also fill the chair of the gatherings of EU heads of government and the presidency of the European Commission.

“Europe is in crisis -- nationalists and populists of all kinds are trying to destroy the union from within and from outside,” the Christian Democrats, the biggest group in the 28-nation Parliament, said in their agreement with the Liberals, the No. 4 faction. “A pro-European coalition is needed to withstand this attempt.”

Tajani succeeds Martin Schulz, a German Socialist who ran the EU Parliament for an unprecedented five years. The assembly decides along with national governments on most European legislation, must give its consent to any Brexit accord and is more splintered after an increase in populist forces in 2014 EU legislative elections.

Berlusconi Ally

An ally of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Tajani has been either a European lawmaker or commissioner for the past 23 years. In the Brussels-based commission -- the EU’s executive arm -- he served stints holding the industry and transport portfolios.

In a manifesto drawn up by the Christian Democrats and Liberals in the EU Parliament, which is the bloc’s only directly elected institution, both groups vowed to seek the assembly’s “full involvement” in what promise to be fraught Brexit negotiations. Earlier, Prime Minister Theresa May said her goal is to pull the U.K. out of the EU single market.

Trade Agreements

The pact between the EU Parliament’s Christian Democrats and Liberals also calls for “new, ambitious trade agreements,” a deepening of the European single market, improved governance of the 19-nation euro, development of Europe’s emissions-trading system meant to fight climate change, and more joint security and defense initiatives.

The contest for leadership of the 751-seat Parliament, where no political group has a majority, shed light on the shifting political sands in Europe and underscored the uncertain fortunes of the Socialists in countries including France, Italy and the Netherlands.

As they struggle at national level, Europe’s Socialists must now draw lessons from their failure to retain the leadership of the EU Parliament.

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