Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

EU Parliament Elects Germany's Poettering President

Bloomberg News - 17 January 2007

By Jonathan Stearns

Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) -- The European Parliament chose Hans- Gert Poettering, a German Christian Democratic supporter of deeper political union in Europe, as assembly president. He takes over a 27-nation institution whose membership is splintering and becoming more hostile to the European Union.

The 61-year-old Poettering succeeds Spain's Josep Borrell midway through the EU assembly's five-year term as part of a power-sharing accord between Christian Democrats and Socialists, the two biggest factions. Poettering, who belongs to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, won 450 of the 689 valid votes cast.

His election today comes a month after the Europe of Nations group displaced the pro-EU Greens as the Parliament's fourth largest faction because of a shift in alliances. He also assumes the top job a day after the assembly added a more extreme nationalist group -- Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty -- that includes members from Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU on Jan. 1.

"My hope is only that in the end we always find majorities for our European project,'' Poettering, who entered the EU Parliament 28 years ago and became Christian Democratic floor leader in 1999, said in an interview at the assembly's headquarters in Strasbourg, France. "Certainly, it might be harder.''

785-Seat Parliament

The accession to the EU of 10 mainly eastern European nations in May 2004 as well as Bulgaria and Romania two weeks ago is challenging the Parliament's traditional domination by Christian Democrats and Socialists from founding member states such as Germany and France. The 785-seat Parliament acts as a barometer of public opinion in Europe and as a lawmaking body.

The rise of EU skepticism in the Parliament may lead to mixed signals over the membership bids of nations including Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey. The trend also threatens to make deliberations over draft legislation in areas from transport to food safety more unpredictable and provoke personal clashes.

Bruno Gollnisch, French leader of the Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty group and a member of France's anti-immigrant National Front, sparred with Socialist leader Martin Schulz of Germany after Schulz urged fellow deputies to block the new faction from getting committee vice-president jobs for which it is eligible.

'Super State'

Gollnisch said former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's controversial likening of Schulz to a concentration-camp guard in mid-2003 may have been justified. Schulz called Gollnisch a "Holocaust denier'' who "represents the neo-fascist movement.'' Gollnisch said the allegations "have absolutely no basis.''

Gollnisch vowed "to defend the identities of each of the countries that compose Europe'' and fight the development of "a European super state.'' His group has 20 members including six from Bulgaria and Romania, whose EU accession some in the alliance had opposed.

Without the new Bulgarian and Romanian deputies, Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty would have failed to meet the Parliament's requirements for a political group to have at least 20 members from a fifth or more of the EU's nations. The new group is the smallest in the assembly.

'Highly Unstable'

Graham Watson, leader of the pro-business Liberals, the assembly's third-biggest party, said the new group "is highly unstable and unlikely to last six months.''

Gollnisch said his faction, which also includes a granddaughter of Italy's World War II fascist leader Benito Mussolini as well as Austrian, Belgian and U.K. members, would be no less unified than the 277-strong Christian Democrats, or European People's Party, of Poettering.

The European People's Party faces the threat of an exodus by U.K. members after the next EU elections in 2009. British Conservative leader David Cameron has pledged to find a new home for his EU deputies who now number 27, saying the Christian Democrats are too supportive of European political union and a 50-year-old system of farm subsidies that benefit mainly France.

The likelihood of a switch by U.K. Conservatives increased after the European People's Party earlier this month chose Joseph Daul, a French farmer who headed the assembly's agriculture committee, to succeed Poettering as the group's floor leader.

'Final Nail' "

Daul as the new group leader is the final nail in the coffin of any of my colleagues who'd hoped that somehow in 2009 we could have stayed in the group,'' said Charles Tannock, a U.K. Conservative in the EU assembly. ``He typifies the Franco- German, Christian Democratic, dirigiste tendencies.''

Tannock said the Christian Democrats include a growing number of deputies who support farm-aid cuts, free markets and a "wider, looser'' EU.

"It's close to tipping point,'' he said. "Our departure in 2009 might pull with us a number of other frustrated delegations.''

Jens-Peter Bonde, a Dane who heads the EU Parliament's Independence and Democracy group, was among three other candidates for the presidency along with Green and European United Left deputies. He said Poettering was too wedded to the Franco-German alliance and Germany's governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to push for necessary changes including a single home for the Parliament.

Strasbourg, Brussels

The assembly shuttles every month between Strasbourg, which is the home for most plenary sessions, and Brussels, where other EU institutions are based and the assembly's committees meet. The main other EU bodies are the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, and the office of national governments, which are the bloc's co-legislators along with the Parliament.

Strasbourg, located on the border with Germany, is a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation. Poettering never knew his father because he died in the final days of World War II.

Poettering vowed to work with Merkel during Germany's six- month EU presidency running through June to revive the European constitution, a new rule book meant to accelerate EU integration and on hold since French and Dutch voters rejected the text in 2005. ``We need the reforms and I will fight for them,'' he said.