EPP struggles for unity on presidential candidate
As MEPs flock to Strasbourg for the last plenary session of the year, the European Parliament's largest group, the centre-right EPP, is busy electing its candidate for the next president of the assembly.
Four members of the group have so far joined the race, although more could follow before the deadline expires on Monday evening (12 December). The group's candidate for the top job will be chosen in an internal election on Tuesday.
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The process has been anything but smooth, a senior EPP member told this website.
"I think we set the date too late, especially as there are many among us who would like to be the president. Discussions are very difficult. It's a huge challenge not to split the group," the lawmaker added.
"But at least we had a transparent process, where everyone could present themselves."
The four to have thrown their hat in the ring so far are France's Alain Lamassoure, 72, who is serving his fifth mandate in the European Parliament; Irish former journalist and farmer, Mairead McGuinness, 57; Italian former EU commissioner Antonio Tajani, 63; and the former prime minister of Slovenia, Alojz Peterle, 68.
EPP group leader German Manfred Weber, 44, and Othmar Karas, 58, an Austrian, are also believed to harbour presidential ambitions.
Gunnar Hoekmark, from the Swedish delegation, said he was sure the candidate who won most votes on Tuesday would have "the full backing" of the group.
He was more worried about support from other groups. To win, a candidate needs the vote of 376 MEPs, decided by a run-off if no candidate gets enough support in three rounds of voting. The EPP group has 214 MEPs.
At the start of the current term, in 2014, the group struck a deal with the Socialist group, the second largest in the parliament with 189 members.
The two agreed to take the most important decisions together, and this way reduce the influence of the eurosceptic groups.
Part of the "grand coalition" agreement was to divide the presidency post among the two for half the term each.
The EPP was due to have its turn from next year. But Socialist group leader, Italian Gianni Pittella broke the agreement by declaring himself the "progressive" candidate, a step that angered EPP members and cast doubt on the future power balance in the European Parliament.
"The Socialists are acting against their own interests. They are undermining their own position in the European Parliament," Hoekmark said, adding that he hoped they would in the end stick to the promise they made.
It's also unsure if the EPP can rely on the other pro-European groups.
The liberal Alde and its 69 members have been pondering to put forward their leader Guy Verhofstadt as a compromise candidate. Verhofstadt will decide in the next few days whether to run or not, an Alde spokesman said on Friday.
The Greens, one of the smallest groups with 50 members, were unlikely to field their own candidate, a spokesman said on Friday.
Some of the group's MEPs have said they wouldn't mind to vote for a woman, hinting they could back Mairead McGuinness if the EPP were to chose her as a candidate.
But Greens wouldn't make formal commitments. "The best way to kill a candidacy is by naming it," Green co-chair Philippe Lamberts has said.
The next president of the European Parliament will be elected on 17 January in a series of secret ballots.