German left-winger to lead EU parliament after re-shuffle
By Honor Mahony
Members of the European Parliament will elect a new president on Tuesday (17 January), but in time-honoured fashion the result of the vote is to reflect a back-room deal made in advance.
The mid-term changing of the guard will return centre-right Polish MEP Jerzy Buzek to the ranks, while - according to the plan - elevating Martin Schulz, a fiery German socialist to the largely ceremonial top office.
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The carve-up in 2009 between parliament's two biggest political groups has given Schulz little motivation to campaign for the post.
He is being formally challenged by Liberal MEP Diana Wallis and by Nirj Deva from the anti-federalist ECR group. But contacts in parliament reckon they will cause the smallest of ripples, gaining "at most 100 votes" out of 736.
Under house rules, the new president is elected once they gain a majority of the votes cast.
Schulz appeared on the parliament map in 2003 after the then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi likened him to a Nazi concentration camp guard - an insult that generated international newspaper coverage.
Soon afterwards he rose to his current position as head of the Socialist group, where he made his name for an aggressive debating style.
A contact in the Socialists said he is "not hugely popular" even in his own group, especially among deputies from smaller member states, who think he gives too much attention to members from France and Germany.
Speaking at a presidential debate last week, Schulz promised to stop the assembly from becoming "marginalised" in current talks on the euro crisis.
He also said he would tackle the issue of the parliament's second seat in Strasbourg if the EU court upholds a bid by MEPs to slightly reduce the number of times they make the monthly trek to the Alsatian capital.
The intensely political Schulz will have a very different job description if he gets the new post.
The president of the parliament is supposed to be neutral and to represent the interests of the entire parliament.
Many of the tasks are ceremonial - Buzek's office often complained that he did not have enough time for politics because he spent so much of it meeting and greeting foreign VIPs and signing documents. Schulz will also get to hobnob with EU leaders at their frequent summits and whizz around the world as the face of the EU assembly.
Schulz' elevation is to leave open the post of Socialist group leader.
This is expected to be filled by Austrian deputy Hannes Swoboda. The British candidate - Stephen Hughes - is seen as having suffered "collateral damage" from the UK's recent decision to block member states from making an EU Treaty change.
This week will also see the election of 14 quaestors (MEPs in charge of administrative affairs) and vice-presidents. The following week (starting 23 January) will see a shake-up of committee chairs, with some names emerging already.
German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok is expected to take over the foreign affairs committee from Italian Gabriele Albertini.
Brok has in the past already held the post for over seven years. But Albertini is generally agreed to have made what should be a high profile committee almost invisible. "Even the Italian delegation admits he's been a disaster," one parliament source said.
In return, a centre-right Italian is to take over the industry committee, currently held by a German.
German Liberal MEP Wolf Klinz is to take over the budget control committee. There are conflicting reports on whether British Liberal Sharon Bowles will hold onto the powerful economic and monetary affairs committee or cede to one of her colleagues, such as Belgian Liberal Sylvie Goulard.
Meanwhile, the Schulz presidency will in a small way loosen the centre-right's stranglehold on EU power.
Conservative politicians have for the past two and half years held top jobs in all three of the main EU institutions and centre right governments currently hold sway in the vast majority of member states.