MEPs gathered in Strasbourg this week for their regular plenary session at the European Parliament. While events were not as dramatic as last time, when Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe was rushed to hospital following an altercation with a fellow MEP, there was plenty of intrigue behind the scenes.
Discussions are intensifying within the parliament’s political groups about the election of a president in January.
The head of the European Parliament is elected every two and a half years, but the election process is more complex this time. Back in 2014, the parliament’s largest two groups – the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – endorsed Martin Schulz’s appointment on the condition that an EPP candidate would assume the role during the second half of the five-year mandate.
There is now a widespread belief that Schulz wants an unprecedented third term, setting up a potential conflict with the EPP, which is essentially in a grand coalition with the Socialists in the European Parliament.
Although MEPs see this as an internal parliamentary issue, there are broader institutional dynamics at play. The current head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European Council president, Donald Tusk, are both EPP members, raising the prospect that all three senior EU jobs would be held by centre-right politicians.
One obvious solution to this conundrum would be that Juncker, a not particularly popular commission president, or Tusk, who faces consistent criticism from his long-term rivals in the Polish government, step down. Sources believe it is more likely that Juncker would step back, as the Jaroslaw Kaczynski-led government in Warsaw is getting little airplay in Brussels.
Juncker also infuriated many in the parliament earlier this year when he publicly backed Schulz for a third term in a series of joint interviews by the two men.
Within the EPP, debate is intensifying about a possible candidate to replace Schulz. Ireland’s Mairead McGuinness has emerged as a frontrunner. As one of 12 vice-presidents of the 751-strong European Parliament, she is by far the most senior Irish MEP, regularly standing in for Schulz to chair debates.
Well-regarded within the EPP, she is, crucially, also respected by those on the other side of the house, a key consideration as the EPP lacks a parliamentary majority. But other high-profile names are in the running too. The French MEP Alain Lamassoure and the Italian MEP and former commissioner Antonio Tajani, who are also vice-presidents of the parliament, are lobbying hard for the role, while former Slovenian prime minister Lojze Peterle, Austrian Othmar Karas and even current EPP president Manfred Weber are also possible candidates.
Some sources this week believe that Tajani, an ally of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, may be damaged over his failure to act on the Volkswagen emissions scandal when he was commissioner.
Lamassoure is seen as a stronger bet, though, at 72, his age may count against him. There is a feeling that the last thing Europe needs is another 60-plus man in a leadership role.
The one to watch
It is for this reason that sources in Strasbourg this week believe McGuinness could be the one to watch. Articulate and intelligent, her gender could also be a strong factor. But within the EPP group there are concerns that an Irish president could be seen as too close to Britain in the forthcoming negotiations on Brexit, a problem for Ireland more generally as it seeks to make its voice heard in the Brexit discussions.
However, McGuinness is understood to have strongly indicated during a recent private EPP meeting that her loyalty will be with Europe when it comes to getting a fair deal with Britain.
Ultimately, the decision about the next European Parliament president may be taken elsewhere. Like so much within the EU, next year's national elections in Germany and France are likely to shape what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg.
In particular, Schulz may have his eye on the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in Germany if Sigmar Gabriel decides not to run. While this was once seen as little more than a pipedream, in the past few weeks his candidature has become a real possibility.
Likewise, Lamassoure is a close ally of French presidential hopeful Alain Juppé . Should Juppé make it to the Élysée Palace, there could be a job for Lamassoure in Paris.
With both the S&Ds and EPP due to select their candidates by mid-December at the latest, there may be plenty more political intrigue in the EU corridors of power in the coming weeks.