Can a conservative president save the EU parliament from the far right?

The European Parliament elected Antonio Tajani on Tuesday to replace outgoing president Martin Schulz. Mr. Tajani faces a number of challenges, including the growing influence of anti-establishment and anti-EU political parties.

Jean-Francois Badias/AP
The newly elected president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani of Italy, attends a joint press conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France on Wednesday. Tajani was elected president of the European Parliament on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the European Parliament elected centrist Italian Antonio Tajani as the body's new president, making him the third center-right leader heading the European Union's top institutions, at a time of growing opposition to the European Union from euroskeptical parties across the continent. 

Europe has seen a surge in right-wing populism in recent years, driven by anti-immigration sentiments and economic dissatisfaction with the EU. Unexpected victories for anti-EU forces, including the "Brexit" referendum last year, revealed cracks in the institution that leave EU centrists little choice but to stand together against a growing wave of radicals and political outsiders. In the coming years, the pressure will likely be on leaders like Mr. Tajani to strike a balance between appeasing right-wing populists while maintaining a more centrist order over the EU itself.

Tajani, a member of the center-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the parliament, was a spokesman for former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Under Mr. Berlusconi, Tajani was appointed to the European Commission, the main executive body of the bloc. Tajani has also been an elected minister to the European Parliament (MEP) four times, and has previously served as the body's vice president.

In short, Tajani is a political insider and a centrist, putting him at odds with many of the "outsider" euroskeptic parties which have seen growing influence in Europe in recent years.

"Since most of the far right voters are losers from the globalization and seek in nationalism a way to protect the very few that remain, the Center-right has to show that it is possible to create new opportunities." Andrea Montanino, director of the Global Business & Economics Program at the Atlantic Council, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. 

The European parliament is directly elected by citizens of the European Union, which then elects the president. Since the presidency requires a majority vote, the two largest parties in parliament, the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), have a system whereby they take turns giving the presidency to a member of the EPP and S&D in an alternating pattern, with rare deviations. The previous president, Martin Schulz, was a member of the S&D, meaning that the EPP's Tajani should have been the shoo-in for the job according to the deal. Instead, the socialists threw their support behind their center-left candidate, Gianni Pittella, driving the election to an unusual four-round runoff.

Ultimately, Tajani beat Mr. Pittella by a comfortable margin of 351 votes to 282.

According to The New York Times, the turning point in the election came when Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, pulled out of the race to form a coalition with the EPP. In doing so, Mr. Verhofstadt hoped to keep the smaller anti-European parties from weakening the already "hugely fragmented" politics within the EU.

But centrist unity will be difficult to achieve, even without the increasing popularity right-wing populism. As the Monitor's Peter Ford reported in December:

Real wages in the EU are still below their 2009 levels, as European countries struggle to emerge from the financial crisis, and income inequality has risen to levels not seen since 2004, according to a report by the European parliament.

Populist leaders in Europe have also profited from spreading unease about immigration, especially in the wake of last year’s mass influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, and fear of Islamist terrorists.

At the same time, European societies have been growing steadily more secular and socially liberal when it comes to sex roles or tolerating diversity. More traditional voters, often less well educated than average, can feel out of place.

Extremely low voter turnout for parliamentary elections has led to the election of various anti-establishment and euroskeptic ministers to gain a foothold in European politics. For example, a member of Germany's National Democratic Party (NPD), which has been accused of having Neo-Nazi connections, was elected to the European Parliament in 2014. The party has never received enough votes to be represented in the German parliament.

Fringe parties like the NPD have always existed within the EU, but the increasing popularity of anti-establishment politics means that Tajani will have to deal with them in a much more direct way than many of his predecessors.

"Tajani is in the somewhat paradoxical situation [of having] to manage short-term political disunification in order to press forward with the pan-European project," David Bieri, associate professor of Urban Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, tells the Monitor via email. "In terms of staving off the far right, Mr. Tajani's own political career under Silvio Berlusconi should provide him with sufficient experience to hold his ground vis-à-vis the far right."

As president of the European parliament, Tajani will oversee parliamentary procedures, sign off on the EU's budget, and represent parliament in international and legal matters. 

"He has a long political experience and will certainly have the ability to manage a complex institution [such] as the European Parliament: many political groups and affiliations, from 28 different countries," says Dr. Montanino. "I think the capacity to find a right balance between different positions will characterize Tajani’s Presidency, given his Christian-Democrat background."

The ability of Tajani and his centrist allies to compromise and find balance over issues like the ongoing Brexit negotiations will certainly be put to the test over his term.

"The traditional parties – center-right but also the center-left – have the responsibility for giving a new hope to European citizens," says Montanino.

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