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The European Parliament has barely returned from its summer break but already two of its main players are plotting to hold onto power or gain more clout, according to officials and MEPs.
The Parliament’s president, David Sassoli, and Manfred Weber, president of the center-right European People’s Party group, are at the heart of the action, although neither has openly declared his plans.
At stake in this bout of presidential shadow boxing is control of key legislative levers as the European Union seeks to emerge from the coronavirus crisis and pass laws on slashing carbon emissions, boosting the digital economy, regulating tech giants and other pressing issues.
And whoever is the Parliament’s president for the second half of its five-year term will face the challenge of trying to hold together an ever-more fractious assembly in the run-up to the next election.
Sassoli, an Italian social democrat, unexpectedly became Parliament president in 2019 as part of a broader agreement to dole out top EU jobs, struck by the bloc’s leaders two years ago. Under that deal, Sassoli was expected to stand down when his term ends in January, to be replaced by a conservative.
However, Sassoli has begun quietly campaigning for a second term, MEPs say.
“Sassoli’s candidacy is an open secret,” one MEP from a southern European country said. “I have seen him more in my office than ever before.”
Meanwhile, Weber, leader of the largest faction in the Parliament, is planning a different presidential power play.
Many expected the Bavarian to succeed Sassoli as Parliament president. But officials say Weber now intends to become president of the EPP itself — an alliance of center-right and conservative parties from across the Continent — as well as being re-elected chairman of its group in the Parliament.
Such a move would be less prestigious than taking on the presidency of one of the main EU institutions. But it would arguably give Weber more real power — as a pivotal figure coordinating conservative MEPs and national leaders, including heads of state and government.
To make that idea a reality, however, current EPP President Donald Tusk would need to step down. Over the summer, Tusk re-took the leadership of the Civic Platform party in his native Poland but he has yet to make clear whether he will bow out as EPP chief.
For decades, the election of the Parliament president was a pre-cooked arrangement made by a “grand coalition” of socialists and conservatives, the leading forces in the assembly.
But the two main groups saw their power diluted in the 2019 European Parliament election and it’s increasingly hard to put together clear majorities in the more diverse chamber.
Sassoli was elected in July 2019 thanks to a “top jobs” package that made the EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen president of the European Commission and Charles Michel, championed by the centrist Renew Europe group, in charge at the European Council.
The agreement was meant to reflect the bloc’s political equilibrium following the election. It foresaw Sassoli relinquishing the top Parliament job to the EPP at the end of his two-and-half-year term, rather than seeking a second stint in the post.
Socialist MEPs and parliamentary officials have increasingly questioned the legitimacy of such a deal, which would mean less clout and prestige for Europe’s second-largest political force.
They also say Sassoli is frustrated because so much of his term has been overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis, including overseeing the introduction of complex measures to protect MEPs and staff. That has meant he has had less time to focus on political matters, they argue.
“He had to run a hospital,” one senior Parliament official said.
As evidence the former TV journalist is campaigning behind the scenes, parliamentary officials point to his proposals — launched before the summer break — to set up “focus groups” with a select number of MEPs to discuss the Parliament’s post-COVID future. Many see that as a re-election platform.
Sassoli’s spokesman, Roberto Cuillo, said the Parliament president “will not make any comment” on his future ambitions.
The Italian faces an uphill task to convince MEPs beyond his own Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group that he’s entitled to run for re-election.
“The EPP is determined to claim the EU parliament presidency next January, since this was agreed with the S&D and Renew in 2019,” one EPP official said.
If Weber does not run for the Parliament presidency, the official added, the EPP group will prioritize senior female candidates, including Roberta Metsola, a Maltese vice president of the Parliament and Dutch MEP Esther de Lange, a vice president of the EPP group.
An official from the Renew Europe group said that most MEPs in his faction would also honor the 2019 deal and support an EPP candidate for the Parliament presidency.
Meanwhile, Weber is set to announce at a group meeting on Wednesday that he intends to replace Tusk as the new EPP president, while seeking re-election as chairman of EPP parliamentary group in the months to come, according to several EPP and Parliament officials.
His plan to run for the party presidency was first reported in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
But Tusk’s own plans remain unclear.
“Currently, there is no set date for Tusk to end his mandate early,” an EPP spokesperson said. “His mandate officially ends in November 2022 and as of yet, there is no set date for the election of a new president.”
A spokesperson for Weber made clear the faction expected one of its members to become Parliament president but declined to specify Weber’s own plans.
“With the midterm approaching, and the agreed change of the EP’s [European Parliament’s] presidency from the S&D to the EPP, important personnel decisions need to be made by the Group in the coming months,” the spokesperson said.
“The timeline for designating the EPP’s candidate for Parliament’s Presidency will be decided shortly by the Group and Chairman Weber will also indicate this week what his own role will be in that process.”
Merging group and party leadership would allow Weber to unify two entities that have been at odds on some issues. As group president, he would continue to oversee and coordinate the passing of EU legislation and as party head, he could work to strengthen the EPP’s tight network of prime ministers and party leaders.
Other politicians have held both roles, notably Wilfried Martens, a former Belgian prime minister who was president of the EPP from 1990 to 2013, while serving as chairman of the parliamentary group from 1994 to 1999.
“EPP members think that the EPP group should be closer to the Council and prime ministers and that having one president for the group and party could bridge the divide between the two,” the EPP official said. “The party and group have been at odds on many files, including migration.”