Socialist Gianni Pittella enters race for European Parliament president

Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness is among the top EPP candidates for the position

The head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, formally entered the race to become the next European Parliament president on Wednesday, potentially setting up a battle to succeed Martin Schulz in one of the EU's top jobs.

Following a meeting of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in Brussels, Mr Pittella confirmed he will run for the position, following the decision by his fellow S&D group member Mr Schulz not to seek a third term. The Italian MEP said he would run on an anti-austerity agenda after winning the unanimous backing of the S&D group. “It is an honour to accept this new challenge. My candidacy is for change,” he said.

The European People’s Party (EPP) , the largest group in the Parliament, has argued that its candidate should assume the presidency in January, following an agreement struck between the two groups in 2014 that states that an EPP candidate should assume the role in early 2017.

Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness is among the top candidates for the position, with the EPP due to select its candidate in just over two weeks’ time in Strasbourg.


Centre-right domination

But the election of an EPP candidate to the top European Parliament job would leave three centre-right politicians at the helm of the

European Council

, Commission and Parliament, a scenario evoked by Mr Pittella as he announced his bid on Wednesday. “With Martin Schulz’s departure from the Parliament presidency the balance among the political families within the EU institutions has gone,” he said. “We will never accept a right-wing monopoly controlling the EU institutions.”

Ms McGuinness' candidacy was given a boost on Wednesday when Taoiseach Enda Kenny officially endorsed the Fine Gael member for the position.  While Mr Kenny publicly backed the Midlands North West MEP at a Young Fine Gael meeting last weekend in Galway, his formal endorsement of the European Parliament vice-president on Wednesday is seen as important in a European context, given his high standing within the EPP group.

"Mairead McGuinness would make an outstanding president of the European Parliament," he said, adding that her communication skills would make her perfectly placed to communicate to the people of Europe what the European Union stands for, something, he said, that has been absent in the past.

Alternative candidates

The other main groups in the European Parliament are also fielding candidates for the presidency, with

Ska Keller

nominated as the Green Party candidate, and

Helga Stevens

running for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.

Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and leader of the liberal group, Alde, has not yet announced his candidacy but could emerge as a compromise candidate between the groups.

The election of Mr Schulz’s successor will take place on January 17th at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Because no single group enjoys a majority in the 751-strong parliament, the successful candidate will need buy-in from MEPs from across the political spectrum in the parliament.

Helga Stevens, the Belgian MEP who has been selected as the ECR candidate, welcomed the fact that an open competition was being held to elect the next president of the Parliament, criticising the “backroom deals” that have characterised the selection procedure in the past. But she said that Mr Pittella and Mr Verhofstadt both represented this kind of backroom deal-making that has demeaned the parliament in recent times, as she called for “fresh blood” in the presidency chair.

Among the candidates in the running to become the EPP candidate are Mairead McGuinness, French MEP Alain Lamassoure, Italian MEP and former commissioner Antonio Tajani, and potentially Manfred Weber, the chairman of the EPP group who has not ruled out running for the position.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent