Now that Martin Schulz is at last gone, the battle for his succession is in full heat. No wonder: the German bulldozer has managed to transform the role of the President of the EP from one in which the incumbent is to ensure that all debates and procedures take place in an orderly and serene way and everyone is treated fairly into one where the President is assuming disproportionate powers, as if he were some kind of head of government. As President, Schulz used all the means that were at his disposal to aggrandize himself, distributing jobs, functions and budgets to his cronies and allies, and limiting the speaking time and access to resources of those who were out of his favour. Given that the Parliament in theory consists of 750 equals, the power he accumulated was quite extraordinary. It is unsurprising that the job that he has re-shaped in this way is now coveted by other politicians of his ilk, such as Guy Verhofstadt (who, however, has undermined his chances of being elected by his failed attempt to integrate the anti-European Movimente 5 Stelle into his “liberal” ALDE Group to step up its number, which makes him look a complete fool…).
The President of the EPP group, Manfred Weber, has tried to increase the chances of his candidate, Antonio Tajani, by making public a “secret” agreement between EPP and the Socialist group that all knew about, even if nobody had actually seen it, in which it was laid out that EPP would support a second term for Martin Schulz if in exchange the Socialists would subsequently support an EPP candidate for the second part of the EP’s five-year term. ALDE joined that agreement later on, and received some additional committee chairs in return. Now that Schulz’s term is ower, the Socialists suddenly disclaim this agreement that in principle would oblige them to support Mr. Tajani – and so does the ALDE Group. We will see whether this shameless breach of a given word will yield them any short term advantage, but in the medium and long term they will lose more than they can gain, as it will inevitably undermine both groups’ credibility. Once cheated this way, the EPP will find it difficult to make any further agreements with either S&D or with ALDE, but could instead, in all legitimacy, turn to the Eurosceptics further right. Pitella and Verhofstadt, who have all the time been claiming to be the “centrists” that keeps the EU going, can themselves in fact only be successful if they draw support from radical groups such as the Greens and Communists. This is thus a defining moment: instead of a cooperation between centrist parties, the EP might in the future be characterised between a conflict between “left” and “right”, with both camps including not only pro-EU centrists, but also the Euro-sceptical and radical fringes. In other words: the radicals will increase their influence, thanks to the pursuit of purely personal interests by the irresponsible and power-obsessed leaders of the S&D and ALDE Groups.
Some rather naive observers, such as those from POLITICO, are now jubilant: this is at last, they say, the return of real politics to the EP, and in any case this open competition, with a quite uncertain outcome, over who will be the EP’s next president, is much better than the secretive back-office deals of the past.
They are wrong. It is absolutely normal for a post like that of the EP President to be negotiated between political groups. It is absolutely normal for political groups to build coalitions, and to use majorities. This is what happens in all democratic parliaments. Nothing to worry about.
What is abnormal is quite something else: the so-called “Grand Coalition” in the European Parliament is actually a myth – it consists of nothing but a short-lived agreement on who should get the post of president. Contingent to this are more elaborate deals to share influential cabinet posts, committee chairs, etc., all at the expense of taxpayers. By contrast, there is no agreement on any policy to be jointly pursued, or any legislation to be jointly drafted and adopted. This is no wonder, given that the European Parliament has no right to initiative, and thus completely lacks the ability to be a political agenda setter. And if common wisdom told you that this “Grand Coalition” between EPP and the Socialists was necessary to keep the Eurosceptics out of pour and jointly ensure that legislative proposals submitted by the Commission would safely sail through the EP, the truth is that the Juncker Commission has right from the outset drastically cut back the overall number of legislative initiatives, and remained rather unsuccessful with those it decided to maintain. The chummy relationship between Commission President Juncker and (former) EP President Schulz did not serve the purpose of ensuring the adoption of urgently needed reforms, but just to keep each other safely in their seats.