European Parliament Presidents serve terms of two-and-a-half years, traditionally dividing the five-year term between different political groups.
Although traditionally the President changes from one half-term to another, the current President, Martin Schulz, is already half way into his second term. Even though Schulz has managed to increase public awareness of the Institution he presides over in the last year, and despite the fact he has enjoyed support from both his group, and from the Group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament (EPP Group), the discussion about who will be his successor has already started to echo loudly in the corridors of the European Parliament.
Schulz held his 2016 inaugural press conference on Thursday, 17 January. This came a day prior to the respective conference of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Sources in the European Parliament told New Europe that Schulz had been asked whether he could make his opening speech for 2016 in Strasbourg during the next week, or even Friday, but he refused. What’s more, the President also rejected the possibility of holding his press conference on Friday, as that would be after the European Commission President.
Schulz was also readily prepared to answer journalists’ questions on the future, and a possible third Presidency. Such questions, however, were never raised, by chance or misfortune.
The Presidency discussion
Without wanting to prejudge the future, but showing favour, on Friday Juncker praised Schulz for his role and for the Parliament’s role in the past year.
Although Juncker is from a different political family, the European People’s Party, his role as Commission President allows him to see, and reach beyond party politics.
However, the EPP Group is not singing the same tune. Disdain for Schulz is growing, particularly because the EPP fears they might not have the numbers to elect the next President of the European Parliament in the next election.
One EPP Member of the European Parliament told New Europe on the condition of anonymity, that “five years under a Socialist President are enough, no matter how friendly to the EPP positions he is”.
The appeal of Schulz to the general public, and his power in his national arena in Germany is also a factor. What complicates matters even more is that the next German federal elections are slated to take place mid/end of 2017. The role Schulz will seek to attain from that election in Germany is key to the political ambitions he will hold for a third term as President.
Some hopefuls in the camp of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, would like to see him run against her for the Chancellery. Schulz only lost the European Commission Presidency to Juncker by a narrow margin last summer, and his political charisma in a changing political climate for Merkel makes the situation slightly less predictable than it was 10 months ago.
Worst case scenario for Schulz is that he ends up with a very powerful government ministry in Germany.
If not Schulz, who?
The trouble for the EPP is selecting the best person to succeed Schulz. Taking over the Presidency also mean the EPP Group would lose two positions of Vice-President.
Though the European Parliament has become more visible in the last year, this has largely been on the heels of back-to-back crises. Indeed Presidents looking to solve crises cannot worry about the visibility of their Institution, and Schulz leading by example, prioritised resolving problems. Looking to the future, however, the European Parliament cannot just be about heated exchanges with the United States over data transfer rules.
The European Union needs a Parliament and a President, who will respond to the day-to-day concerns and troubles of the citizens. The European Parliament has to not be just a technical regulatory machine, but a political body. Looking in parallel to the other side of the Atlantic, the role of Speaker of the House of Representatives has evolved over time. The figure has become a deeply political figure. In the same way, the next Parliament President, or Presidential term, should be crucial to finding political deals, standing behind initiatives, and helping Member States deal with current problems that citizens are facing.
The President of the Parliament needs to be the biggest promoter of the European idea. This, for the time being, is being owned by the Commission President, who has willingly, or unwillingly, assumed that role for the three EU Institutions.
Names in the mill
The two front-runners for the Presidency at the moment are Alain Lamassoure and Antonio Tajani. While the latter has the support of Germany, the race is tighter than expected.
With the implausibility of yet another term under a German President ruling out Manfred Weber, ElmarBrok, and David McAllister (who is on his way to becoming Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee), the field is wide open.
The EPP Group would certainly also find it difficult to see a compromise candidate in Syed Kamall, yet changing political circumstances
Nevertheless, the prospect of a female President also echoes positively. Second Vice-President, MaireadMcGuinness, from Ireland, and Vice-President Adina-IoanaValean, from Romania, fit the bill.
However, while it is still early to speculate on the end result, the important element for political leaders and citizens focus on, is the formation of a concrete idea about what qualities they would like to see in the next European Parliament President.
For now, Schulz remains a strong President with the highest of ambitions.