MEPs hold crunch vote for European Parliament leader

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The European Parliament voted Wednesday to choose a new president and fill the final top EU job, a day after Brussels named two women to key posts for the first time.

The new MEPs elected in May’s European polls took office on Tuesday during a brief inaugural session before voting by secret ballot to choose a successor to Antonio Tajani, a conservative from Italy.

The 751-seat parliament – based in Strasbourg, France – is more fragmented than ever after a vote in May that saw solid gains by the liberals and Greens as well as the far right and eurosceptics.

A first round of voting brought no clear winner from the four hopefuls, with the favourite, Italian social democrat MEP David Sassoli, getting most votes with 325 but falling short of the 332 needed for an outright majority.

A second round with the same candidates – Sassoli, German Green Ska Keller, far-left Spaniard Sira Rego and Czech conservative Jan Zahradil – was scheduled for 11:40 am (0940 GMT).

If no-one commands an absolute majority after three rounds of voting, a simple majority would be sufficient in a fourth round, in which only the two leading candidates would participate.

The vote comes a day after the painful agreement reached by the EU’s 28 national leaders in Brussels on nominating a president of the European commission and other key posts.

The two-and-a-half year term as parliament president – effectively the speaker of the chamber – is one of the top jobs that the major European political families are seeking to dole out over the next weeks, even if it is less coveted than that of president of the European Commission or European Central Bank.

The EU leaders on Tuesday filled in most of the puzzle by nominating German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen as commission chief and IMF chief Christine Lagarde to head the European Central Bank, though their appointments still need confirmation.

Left unknown is whether the parliament will follow their national leaders’ suggestion that the chamber’s presidency should be shared for the next five years by the Socialists and Tajani’s EPP.

Von der Leyen is expected to visit parliament in the afternoon to court MEPs, whose approval is needed to confirm her position as commission chief.

Germany’s Manfred Weber, head of the EPP group, took note of the outcome of the Brussels summit by renouncing to run for parliament head, after having already thrown in the towel in the race for the Commission’s presidency.

“It is normal, that after two and a half years of an EPP president, now it is up to the Socialists to present a candidate,” Weber told a press briefing in Strasbourg.

“We are ready to check with the Socialists for a candidate and to give our support,” he said.

But the Social Democratic group in the European Parliament, second only to the EPP in terms of seats, put forward Sassoli after criticising the agreements reached between the 28, which it described as “deeply disappointing”.

They had wanted the commission head spot to go to their leading candidate, the Dutchman Frans Timmermans.

On Tuesday, the opening of the Parliament’s session was marked by the return of Nigel Farage, a veteran of the EU chamber since 1999, whose Brexit Party MEPs turned their backs when asked to stand for the EU anthem — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – at the start of the session.

As Brexit has still not taken place, there are again 73 British MEPs, who will be able to sit temporarily until the divorce goes through. The new deadline is October 31.

It also saw the demonstration of some 10,000 Catalans who came to Strasbourg to support three secessionists elected at the end of May but prevented from sitting by Spanish authorities.