Gianni Pittella, leader of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, has not left yet. But the battle to succeed him is already raging.
While the Italian MEP is campaigning to win a Senate seat in Italy’s coming election, many of his colleagues say they will either push for Udo Bullmann, the interim leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group, to replace Pittella, or opt for a woman (and a non-German) such as Elena Valenciano, to revive the beleaguered Socialists.
“We know Pittella has very high chances of being elected in Italy and the group is clearly pushing for a woman [to replace him],” said a senior Parliament official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The stakes are high as socialists have been heavily defeated in elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands over the past year. The center left hopes to rally in time for the European election in 2019 and wants a strong parliamentary leader to help them do that.
Last month, Pittella announced he would run for a seat in Italy’s election on March 4, but on the condition that he would take back his job in Brussels if he fails. Pittella put Bullmann, a German vice president of the S&D, in charge during the “transition phase” until he resigns officially — if he gets elected, that is. Bullmann was unavailable for comment.
The election (by secret ballot) to replace Pittella would likely take place shortly after the Italian vote, but some MEPs from the S&D — the Parliament’s second largest group — are already distancing themselves from Bullmann.
The problem is that he’s German and a former trade union member.
“Udo is serious and hard-working,” the senior Parliament official said. “But he is too attached to the old social democracy message.”
There are also those who don’t want more Germans in top jobs in the European Parliament. The assembly’s top staffer — Secretary-General Klaus Welle — is German and so is his deputy, Markus Winkler, while three other Germans lead political groups (Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party; Ska Keller, a co-president of the Greens; and Gabi Zimmer who heads the far-left group).
Christine Revault d’Allonnes-Bonnefoy, who leads the French delegation of the S&D, said many in the group also feel uncomfortable with having Bullmann lead a group that has abandoned the Parliament’s “grand coalition” while representing the German SPD, which has agreed to rejoin a “grand coalition” government in Germany (pending a vote by party members).
In 2016, Pittella announced he would abandon a longstanding coalition with the conservative European People’s Party to carve up top jobs and pass legislation. Yet last week the SPD, under the leadership of former Parliament President Martin Schulz, agreed to form a new alliance with Angela Merkel’s conservatives. Schulz has since quit as SPD leader.
“It puzzles us a lot,” Revault d’Allonnes-Bonnefoy said. “We are all aware that we must be audible and coherent vis-à-vis European citizens, otherwise they will never understand where we want to go.”
Competence, not nationality
An increasingly popular option is to pick Valenciano, a vice president of the S&D and a senior member of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE).
Neither Bullmann nor Valenciano have officially said they plan to run, but several Parliament officials said both have expressed privately their willingness to do so. It is not yet clear if Valenciano would get the endorsement of Pedro Sánchez, national leader of the PSOE.
“More and more delegations want her,” the senior Parliament official said. “She has a very diverse political profile.”
When asked if she was going to run to succeed Pittella, Valenciano didn’t rule it out, saying: “I am honored by people’s support. But it’s too soon to make any decisions.”
An experienced MEP and fluent French speaker, Valenciano is a former Spanish member of parliament and was the right-hand woman of Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, a former leader of the PSOE.
Other names rumored to be in the running include Maria João Rodrigues, a former Portuguese minister, Belgium’s Kathleen Van Brempt and Tanja Fajon of Slovenia.
An aide to João Rodrigues said the Portuguese MEP believed it was “too early to comment.”
“Only after March 4 will it be clear if S&D needs a new leader,” the aide said.
Revault d’Allonnes-Bonnefoy said the French delegation has not chosen a candidate to back but she supports Bullmann’s desire to “closely link” an economic and social program to environmental and energy policies.
On Bullmann’s nationality, she said: “I’ll never adopt any anti-German views because we work very well with the SPD.”
Jo Leinen, another German member of the S&D, said Pittella was still the leader of the group and MEPs would discuss his succession “at the appropriate time after the elections.”
However, Leinen expressed clear support for Bullmann, who “brings the necessary experience and … has proven to be a team-player and skilled consensus builder.”
Still, as the 2019 election is fast approaching, Leinen said, “it is of utmost importance to find the best person for the job.”
“We should focus on competence rather than nationality,” he added.