PostPolitik - The blog of Alessio Postiglione

The coming elections for the presidency of the European parliament signal that a real competition is underway between Antonio Tajani, the candidate of European People’s Party (EPP), and Gianni Pittella, who leads the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

European Parliament President elections, Antonio Tajani, Gianni Pittella
Tajani and Pittella

The election that will be held on January 17 is finally a competitive race, because the EPP and S&D gave up reaching a deal in order to appoint a candidate to replace departing President Martin Schulz.

Pittella’s decision to dismantle the grand coalition at European level is a first credible step to oppose populism. The recurrence of coalitions of the two main centre-right and centre-left parties have fostered a general perception about the existence of a collusive duopoly that enacts a blocked democracy which isolates outsiders. This is fundamentally true because power-sharing arrangements favor governability at the expense of representation; large coalitions imply that ruling elites may become self-referential. In addition, the rhetoric “establishment Vs outsiders” is vital for populist parties, and fixing party competition can dwindle the overall antiestablishment sentiment.

Moreover, the coming contest puts much more than the presidency itself at stake. It will define the political stance of both the European People’s Party and the Socialists. This election may also unveil the extent to which the mainstream parties are able to thwart populism, whether by means of a strategy aimed at appeasing it or contrasting it.

This is the case of the European People’s Party’s choice of Antonio Tajani. Tajani is a moderate, however as a founding member of Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi‘s personal party, his candidacy could favor a shift of the EPP rightward. This political drift might help the radical right, since each time one repeats a populist frame one strengthens those frames.

European Parliament President elections, Antonio Tajani, Gianni PittellaBerlusconi’s stances are actually very similar to those of the populists. He is a genuine admirer of President Vladimir Putin of Russia and a fierce enemy of Angela Merkel’s liberalism. Consequently, Forza Italia shares many issues with populism. It features the charismatic leadership of Silvio Berlusconi and a trickle-down economics approach coupled with a blatant law-and- order stance that scapegoats multiculturalism and migration. Thanks to Berlusconi, liberal European countries have learned the hard way how massive economic interests, unregulated at a national level, may hijack European democracy. National regulation deficits may pose a supranational threat to all Europe, since bad money drives out good money.

Even if Tajani does not share the same anti-liberal conservatism of Berlusconi, he could revamp it. A Tajani win would be a Berlusconi success that could trigger a political shift of the EPP from a moderate and liberal position, embodied by the Euro-Atlantic, pro-market leadership of Angela Merkel, to an anti-German populist conservatism, sympathetic to Putin and the crony capitalism that Berlusconi’s values entail.
This would also mean a betrayal of Popular values, the ones represented by personalities such as Adenauer, Schumann and De Gasperi represented. As a consequence, the EPP choice of supporting Tajani could be negative for the party itself. As the mild-populist conservatism of Forza Italia can strengthen the radical Right, it could also ultimately weaken the main EPP shareholder, the German Christian Democrats. As a consequence, Tajani’s hypothetical victory could galvanize Alternative for Germany, the main CDU/CSU (the German Conservatives) competitor, since the same European Parliament President’s party would legitimize a critical position regarding Merkel’s policies on asylum seekers and pro-Europeanism.

On the other hand, Pittella represents a resolute Pro Europe stance which aims at safeguarding the primacy of the Union from Euroscepticism, countering the return to nations states, strongly and primarily advocated by European populists.
Furthermore, the Socialist candidate has questioned Austerity without falling into the excesses of radicalism. The ‘input overload’ (the theory implying that governments become unable to respond to all demands requested by the public) that contemporary Democracies suffer shows that the left has to take the fiscal crises of the State seriously.

However, also Pittella may face many difficulties. First and foremost, he will need to strike a balance between the moderates in his coalition with those who request more expansionary fiscal policies.
In the end, the most ambitious goal that both the EPP and S&D will have to reach is demonstrating to a disillusioned electorate that the cleavage between right and left still matters.

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