Thursday

23rd May 2019

Irish woman tipped for EU parliament top job

  • "She's shrewd and polished, but she also has a human touch. She's never put a foot wrong" (Photo: Finer Gael)

Irish politician Mairead McGuinness is being tipped to replace Antonio Tajani as European Parliament (EP) president if he goes to Rome.

When asked by EUobserver on Friday (2 March) if she wanted the post, her office said: "Ms McGuinness does not want to engage in speculation".

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  • Far from certain if Tajani (r) will really go (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

But it added, on a positive note, that she was widely popular in the EU assembly.

"She enjoyed the support of 75 percent of members of parliament in 2017 when she stood for the position of [EP] vice-president", a post which she now holds, her office said.

Speculation arose after Tajani said on Thursday he would leave his EU job to become Italy's next PM if the centre-right coalition led by his party, Forza Italia, won the Italian election on Sunday.

If he goes, McGuinness, his 58-year old deputy, would automatically become the interim EP president.

MEPs would then vote for Tajani's successor in an open ballot, which would likely take place after he had formed a government in Italy sometime between April and June.

Small EP political groups, such as the Greens, have a track record of putting forward surprise candidates to stir things up.

But most EP top job ballots are sewn up beforehand in a deal between the leading groups, including McGuinness and Tajani's centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D, and the liberal Alde faction.

A senior EPP source, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver that McGuinness was "the obvious choice" because she was already Tajani's deputy and because the EPP wanted to retain the post.

The source also said she had a good chance because there was no appetite in the S&D for a political punch-up just 18 months before the next EU election in 2019.

The source said German politician Manfred Weber, the current EPP head, might throw his hat into the ring.

"It depends on whether he sees the EP post as a platform for a longer career in the next parliamentary term, but I haven't heard anything in that direction", the source said.

"Outside those two names, I'd be very surprised if someone else came forward from our group," the source added.

"I don't see Weber going there", another EP contact said.

"McGuinness has legitimacy, she's a woman, and she's used to the [EP] bodies related to the presidency," the contact said.

The comment on "legitimacy" referred to the fact McGuinness was the runoff candidate against Tajani for the EP presidency last year.

Europe's parliament last had a female president, Nicole Fontaine, 15 years ago, and only one other before that, Simone Veil, in the 1980s. All the other EU top jobs are currently held by men.

McGuinness is used to presidency duties because she has chaired dozens of sessions on Tajani's behalf.

S&D bows out?

Jo Leinen, a German politician in the S&D group, echoed the EPP thinking.

"The EPP has the pole position [for the job]," he told EUobserver earlier this week, in a sign that the S&D might not put up a fight.

"If Weber wants to do it, he would probably get it … They [also] have McGuinness, if they want a woman to be president," Leinen said.

Another EP source said Alde would not put up a candidate and could endorse McGuinness.

"She's shrewd and polished … She's never put a foot wrong. She wanted to be president of Ireland, so she has lofty ambitions and she won't let this [opportunity] get past her," the source said.

McGuinness' Irish nationality was also in her favour, the source added.

Ireland is a small state that won friends in Europe for its orderly handling of an EU bailout, the source said, while Weber's nomination could prompt criticism that Berlin had too much power in Brussels.

"You couldn't have a German, especially after Selmayr-gate," the source said, referring to a recent controversy over the elevation of Martin Selmayr, a German EU official, to the top civil service post in the European Commission.

The EP sources warned it was not certain that Tajani would go, however.

Will he go?

The Forza Italia bloc polled to win the most votes on Sunday, but not a majority, creating the risk that Italian eurosceptics might block Tajani in coalition talks.

"If Tajani is the next [Italian] prime minister, Europe can be satisfied. By what he's done in Brussels, he's pro-European - he wouldn't support radical ideas, such as Italy leaving the euro, or closing its borders [to migrants]," the S&D's Leinen said.

One of the EP contacts said that, despite Tajani's public statement on Thursday, he did not really want to leave Brussels.

"Tajani would go reluctantly. He doesn't fancy it", the contact said.

The contact added that when the Forza Italia party chief, Silvio Berlusconi, visited the EU capital in January, EU Council chief Donald Tusk and commission head Jean-Claude Juncker asked him to leave Tajani in place.

"Maybe Berlusconi is just using him [Tajani] to show that he's EU-compatible," the contact said, putting another question mark over Tajani's future.

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