Italian conservative leads in vote for new EU president | Reuters

By Francesco Guarascio

STRASBOURG Italian conservative Antonio Tajani was close on Tuesday to being elected president of the European Parliament, one of the EU's three top political institutions, as he headed for a run-off against a centre-left rival with vital backing from other parties.Tajani has benefited from a coalition with the liberals, which aims to curb the influence of anti-EU populists, as well as backing from British and Polish eurosceptics at a time of crisis for a bloc buffeted by Brexit and general disillusion. Having led in three indecisive ballots, he goes into a run-off against fellow Italian Gianni Pittella comfortably placed, with Pittella having to count on Green and far-left votes. Far-right parties may abstain altogether.Tajani scored 291 votes in the third ballot compared with 199 for Pittella. Flemish nationalist Helga Stevens from the European Conservatives and Reformers was third with 58 and her group then threw itself behind Tajani.The last-minute withdrawal of centrist Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, had strengthened Tajani's hand and underlined how mainstream, pro-EU parties are trying to keep a grip against a vocal eurosceptic minority.Verhofstadt, a leading European federalist who is also the Parliament's point man on Brexit negotiations, highlighted the challenges the EU faces in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who predicted this week that more countries would seek to follow Britain's example and leave the bloc.

The vote has been unusually fraught since the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, the second biggest after the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group, broke a grand coalition with the EPP and the liberals in order to field its own candidate to succeed President Martin Schulz.The S&D had previously agreed, when its candidate Schulz was re-elected in 2014 with EPP backing, to support an EPP candidate this time round. That rift in the mainstream has been seen as giving a potentially greater voice to eurosceptics who have been bolstered by Britain's referendum vote last year to quit the EU.

Schulz, who is returning to German politics, had worked in the framework of the grand coalition to ease legislation through with centre-right Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.A win for Tajani would now give the EPP control of all three presidencies of the major EU political institutions, raising calls in some quarters for either Juncker or European Council President Donald Tusk to make way for a figure from the left.

However, there is no clear consensus on that happening.Verhofstadt said of his party's alliance with the centre-right: "It is a first and important step in the building up of a pro-European coalition ... that is absolutely necessary with Trump, with Putin, with many other challenges Europe faces."Tajani, 63, has been a close ally of Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.Parliament will also have to sign off on the exit deal with Britain, probably by late 2018 or early 2019, just as lawmakers are campaigning for an EU-wide legislative election in May 2019. (Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Published Date: Jan 18, 2017 01:31 AM | Updated Date: Jan 18, 2017 01:31 AM

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