Last, week, Antonio Tajani was elected President of the European Parliament. Considering the myriad challenges currently facing both the EU and the wider continent, his job should be one of the busiest in politics.
His victory was the result of a newly established alliance between Guy Verhofstadt’s liberals, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and Tajani’s center-right European People’s Party (EPP).
“We want to act together to bring results for European citizens and guarantee Europe’s stability. Our partnership is based on content and on reforms for Europe. It is a pact for results,” the parliamentary leader of the EPP, Manfred Weber, said. “This is a first important step in the construction of a pro-European coalition to reform and strengthen our union, which is absolutely necessary. With Trump, with Putin, with many other challenges Europe faces, it is key we cooperate to reform our Union,” echoed Verhofstadt.
Following the year in which the establishment took a serious kicking in the form of the Donald Trump’s election win and Britain’s vote to leave the EU, you’d be forgiven for assuming that a change in the Parliament’s presidency might mark a fresh start for the EU.
But those hoping for change in European politics will probably be disappointed. Tajani is a former EU commissioner, a former spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi and one of the founders of the media tycoon’s party. He represents the Parliament’s choice to maintain the status quo in the European Union.
After securing his victory, Tajani suggested that there is neither a need to press ahead with “more” European integration, nor to destroy this successful supranational political project to deal with the current crisis in European politics. This attitude is hopeless.
The old continent is facing poor growth, strong unemployment — especially in some of the southern areas — and a growing dissatisfaction with its overall governance. This has contributed to the rise of nationalist, far-right and anti-EU forces.
This unpleasant situation is being worsened by the ongoing waves of refugees reaching Europe’s borders. The answer of the European leadership to such problems has been inadequate.
This historical moment requires a renewed dynamism; revolutionary action must be taken if the European Project is to survive.
Yet, 351 MEPs (out of a total of 751) voted for a line of “continuity” when they elected Tajani. This could anger many European citizens — especially the jobless youth.
Western societies have experienced — with Brexit and the election of Trump — how the anti-elites translate politics.
The risk is, in fact, a further strengthening of narrow right-wing nationalist forces in the coming elections in France and Holland, and later in Germany.
In other words, the EU should be working hard to improve its unappealing image by implementing more social and “people-friendly” reforms. But the political elite seems determined to take a trip on the Titanic, rather than change its world view.
In practical terms, the appointment of Tajani completes the monopoly of the center-right group over some of the EU main institutions: they already lead the governing body — the EU Commission — and the powerful representative of member states, the EU Council.
This means that there will be no counterbalance to unpopular austerity policies promoted by Germany.
The aforementioned liberal group, ALDE, shares the same economic standpoint. But this fixation with budgets alone will not reverse a stagnant economy, promote public investments, nor will it offer a better future for workers and the young.
Their new plans are still vague and based on existing policies. The EPP-ALDE agreement proudly states that they will be supporting “a strengthening of the growth, stability, sustainable development and investment strategy in the Union including support for new ambitious trade agreements.”
This leaves anyone familiar with Europe wondering: what growth? what stability?
Naturally, there is no mention of the fragility of some of the Italian banking system or the lack of recovery in places such as Greece. “It’s a coalition of ideas,” Verhofstadt suggested, “to change the direction of the European Union. … We need leadership, the future does not wait.”
But taking this new leadership at its word, it is hard to see any improvements on the horizon.
Andrea Mammone is a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, who writes and comments on European politics and the far right. The opinions in this article belong to the author.