Italian MEP David-Maria Sassoli was elected president of the European Parliament on Wednesday, propelled to victory thanks to a recommendation from EU leaders to put a socialist at the helm of the legislature.
Sassoli won 345 votes in the second round of balloting. Jan Zahradil won 160 votes and Ska Keller 119.
He is due to serve for two-and-a half years — half the parliamentary term — before passing the torch to a member of the center-right European People's Party for the rest of the mandate.
In his remarks to MEPs before the vote, Sassoli — who as a former TV journalist has a profile in Italy but is not well known outside the country — said he had decided to run because "Europe will be stronger only with a Parliament which plays a more important role."
Sassoli's rise to power is unexpected. EU leaders had on Tuesday floated the idea of Sergei Stanishev, a Bulgarian and the president of the Party of European Socialists, taking the Parliament presidency. Stanishev would have helped to provide an Eastern European balance to the slate of EU top jobs — the first four of which were settled on Tuesday.
The “top jobs” package agreed by leaders on the European Council after three days of marathon talks saw German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen nominated as Commission president; Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel named president of the Council; IMF chief Christine Lagarde put forward to head the European Central Bank; and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell nominated as high representative for foreign affairs.
Candidates who had been expected to seek the European Parliament presidency, including current job-holder Antonio Tajani and Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, did not run. "Renew Europe [the liberal-centrist grouping in the Parliament] — including Guy Verhofstadt himself — supports the [Council] package so there is no liberal candidate for the European Parliament presidency," an official from the group said. Parliament officials said Stanishev did not submit his candidacy.
In recent days, senior MEPs have asserted the Parliament's autonomy and independence. However, in the event they followed the path set down by the European Council in electing a socialist and thus providing political balance to the slate of EU top jobs. By choosing an Italian and not an Eastern European for the role, they failed to provide geographical balance.
Sassoli did not make his bid public before the end of the European Council on Tuesday. As a former vice-president of the Parliament, Sassoli is known to MEPs for chairing plenary sessions in Strasbourg. As a member of Italy's center-left Democratic Party, his delegation is the second largest within the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament.
The Parliament will also elect 14 vice presidents on Wednesday and five quaestors (who look after financial and administrative matters) on Thursday.
After thanking Tajani for his “dedication" to the institution, Sassoli made an emotional plea in plenary, asking the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission to “respond with more courage to the requests of European citizens.” He also called to "reinforce procedures to make the Parliament a protagonist of a true European democracy.”
“The Parliament will act as a guarantor of the independence of European citizens,” he added.
Stanishev said in an emailed statement to POLITICO that it was a “great honor” for him that EU leaders recommended him for the Parliament presidency. But he said he had asked Iratxe García, the leader of the S&D group, not to submit his name as he believed that “my efforts as a president of the Party of the European Socialists will help strengthen further our political family.”
“The campaign of the PES was focused on sustainability, act on climate change, gender equality and fairness for all Europeans,” he wrote. “This is what our common candidate Frans Timmermans campaigned on. This is what our voters expect from us. Now we have to do everything in our powers to add our ideas of fair, free and sustainable Europe in to the schedule of the new European Commission.”