Balancing on the red lines

Gianni Pittella: Leading the S&D Group in the European Parliament


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This is a story of long hours of meticulous work over complex Community dossiers, often far from the spotlight, accomplished thanks to the patience and stubbornness of the quintessential homo politicus europeo: Gianni Pittella. Hailing from the small Southern Italian region of Basilicata, Pittella was raised on bread and politics; though his diet was arguably a bit poor in English. Having studied in Italy myself, the hours I spent with Pittella were, for the good of the English language, enjoyed in italian.Southern Europeans are survivors, hard working and ​have increased ability to conceptualise the abstract – a quality lacking in many of today’s leaders. ​​

 As the leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, Pittella has succeeded in securing – in these first, very complicated months of the new legislature – unexpected and unhoped-for results in terms of budgetary flexibility and Juncker’s investment plan. It is an achievement that vindicates the S&D group’s long battle against austerity – or, as the leader of the EP’s second-largest group calls it, “austericide”.

“We worked hard behind the scenes on very technical dossiers, politically fine-tuning the documents while mediating between the legitimate political pressures coming from the group and the Commission’s red lines”, says Pittella. “The results are there for all to see: we’ve gone from blind austerity to a plan for investment and growth. Such an outcome was far from obvious. The same goes for the Commission’s communication on flexibility and the exemption from the stability pact of the funds pledged to the investment plan. This marks a historic and profound turning point, which was achieved by working hand in hand with the Italian presidency of the EU Council”.

Pittella’s role is not an easy one, politically speaking: not only must he reconcile the positions of the 192 MEPs from the 28 national delegations that make up the S&D group, the only group in the EP comprised of members from all 28 EU countries; he must also strike a very delicate balance between diplomacy and firmness in his not-always-easy relations with the various actors of the European political scene: from President Jean-Claude Juncker to the various Commissioners, from the Parliament’s President, Martin Schulz, with whom Pittella enjoys a relationship of cooperation and mutual trust, to the national governments.

One of the main aims of his mandate as President of the Socialists and Democrats group is to strengthen the international scope of the Socialist family. Palestine, Ukraine, Libya, immigration and Africa are just a few of the dossiers which Pittella has been actively working on and continues to work on, making use of his vast network of contacts among foreign leaders. “This is the only way that we can actively contribute to Federica Mogherini’s efforts, aimed at creating a one true single foreign policy for the entire Union”, stresses Pittella.

To get there, Pittella intends to leave no stone unturned. His dizzying schedule is a testament to this: every weekend he’s in a different European country (if not a different continent), or meeting with one of the many parties that comprise the Party of European Socialists (PES). As his Facebook and Twitter followers know all too well, it is not unusual to seem him go in just three days from Strasburg to Frankfurt, from Helsinki to Prague, before returning to Brussels.

To get to where he is now, Pittella spent more than 15 years climbing through the ranks – and overcoming prejudices – as an MEP. Those who know him say “he is one of the few Italians that in these years has taken Europe seriously, trudging through the dossiers; and despite being an Italian and moreover a southerner, which can still work against you in Brussels”. This has never stopped Pittella, though. “In the end – he never stops repeating – your work pays off”.

In Pittella, commitment and dedication to the cause are certainly not lacking. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his English. Despite attending English lessons every morning, it just doesn’t seem to stick. But hey, no one’s perfect…

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