Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
January’s monthly plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg was dominated by an issue that excited the Brussels bubble and keen observers of EU politics, but very few of my constituents…namely, the election of the President of the European Parliament. For those not interested in the machinations or the result, you can look away now and skip forward to the last sentence.
It was the end of an era, as the previous President, Martin Schulz, stepped down from the podium and returned to his seat as an ordinary MEP. This week, he resigned from the European Parliament altogether to begin his campaign to become Chancellor of Germany as the candidate for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
On a personal note, I enjoyed a good working relationship with Schulz, and nobody can deny that when it came to his handling of the European Parliament, he was a serious backroom dealer. His departure from Brussels marks the end of a 30-month ‘Grand Coalition’ between the Christian Democrat (EPP) and Social Democrats (S&D) groups that has sought to dominate the EU’s supranational institutions. Under the deal, Jean Claude Juncker joined together with Schulz in a relationship akin to that of a President and a Prime Minister. Juncker controlled the executive, but Schulz was the man who would manage the ‘coalition’ for him in the European Parliament. This was a demonstration of EU democracy.
However, that arrangement has – at least for the moment – ended with the election of the new President, Antonio Tajani. He was elected on a mandate of being a more neutral speaker, and not a partisan leader of the European Parliament.
We in the ECR put forward our own candidate for President – the indomitable Helga Stevens from Flanders. Overcoming the challenges of being born deaf, Helga has achieved much during an impressive career in law and politics. Since becoming a MEP, she has earned herself a reputation as someone who can bring people together, and respect the many different points of view. She ran a very strong campaign and her speech on the day of the vote was brilliant. Watch it here.
Before the voting had even begun, sensing an obvious lack of support, Guy Verhofstadt pulled out of the race, but not until he had agreed a new coalition deal with the EPP. It was a real shame for Helga, as I am certain that she would have beaten Verhofstadt.
Helga went through all of the first three rounds of voting but, in the final round, only the two top-ranked candidates can go forward. Therefore the ECR had a choice either to vote for the Italian Socialist, Gianni Pittella, or the centre-right Italian Antonio Tajani, or to abstain.
While most of the ECR group’s natural inclination was reluctantly to vote for Tajani, the agreement that had been struck between the EPP – his political group – and the Liberals was much of the old, failed centralising direction that has failed the EU. We were very worried that Tajani would see this coalition agreement as his mandate, which we would could not support. So, in the middle of the afternoon, Mr Tajani came down to the ECR group meeting and agreed to publish a statement and a video making it clear that this was not his agenda, and to confirm that he would act as a speaker of the European Parliament. Watch the video here.
Without our support, the socialist could have won. Instead, thanks to our votes in the final round, the ECR emerged as the kingmakers and Tajani was elected President.
Of course, time will tell whether Tajani will represent a change from the approach of Schulz to the role. I certainly believe that in the UK, we can count on a fairer hearing from Tajani, who is at heart a centre-right pragmatist and wants the EU and the UK to enjoy a good relationship after Brexit.
Following on from that election, the European Parliament also re-constituted all of its committees. A threat to unseat British MEPs from major roles, made shortly after Brexit, was not followed through. Our very own indefatigable Vicky Ford was re-elected to chair the European Parliament’s important Internal Market committee. In the spirit of Theresa May’s speech, as long as the UK remains a member of the EU and continues to pay into the budget, Conservative MEPs will continue to play a constructive role in the European Parliament.
The response to the Prime Minister’s speech has led to a notable change in tone on the other side of the Channel in recent weeks. Senior EU negotiators told me they welcomed the clarity and looked forward to Article 50 being invoked. Shock, anger, sorrow and denial over the democratic decision of the British people to leave the EU has been replaced by a more business-like approach. I am more confident than ever that we can reach an agreement that will be in both Britain and the EU’s interests.
So the ECR Group came away from Strasbourg in January proud of the performance of our own ECR candidate, strengthened in terms of our position in the European Parliament, and with a new President who claims to be more open to different points of view. For the British, we now have a European Parliament President who will be more fair-minded towards the UK.
As we say in London…mustn’t grumble!