European Parliament chooses new president, completing top EU jobs

Cédric SIMON
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Italian MEP David-Maria Sassoli, who was elected European Parliament president, is a former television news journalist

Italian MEP David-Maria Sassoli, who was elected European Parliament president, is a former television news journalist (AFP Photo/FREDERICK FLORIN)

Strasbourg (France) (AFP) - The European Parliament on Wednesday elected an Italian social democrat as its new president, filling the final top EU job a day after Brussels named two women to key posts for the first time.

Italy's David Sassoli, a 63-year-old former journalist, won the absolute majority of ballots he needed at the second round of voting, seeing off German Green Ska Keller, far-left Spaniard Sira Rego and Czech conservative Jan Zahradil.

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 Sassoli as successor to Antonio Tajani, a conservative from Italy.

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

The vote for president completes the roster of the EU's five most important jobs, with the others settled on Tuesday at the end of three days of negotiation among the EU's 28 national leaders in Brussels.

Sassoli's election to a two-and-a-half year term as parliament president -- effectively the speaker of the chamber -- is a sought-after post by the major European political families, though less coveted than that of president of the European Commission or European Central Bank.

"We must have the courage to relaunch our integration project, we must make our union evolve," he told MEPs, urging them to be "more responsive to the demands of our citizens".

The EU leaders on Tuesday nominated 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.

Von der Leyen wasted no time in her campaign to court the parliament, which must approve her nomination, appearing in Strasbourg for talks with her centre-right EPP family on Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after winning the leaders' nod.

The national leaders also suggested that the chamber's presidency should be shared for the next five years by the Socialists and Tajani's centre-right EPP. Sassoli's election completes the first part of this, but it remains unclear whether he will make way in due course.

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

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.

- Brexit and Catalonia -

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. His 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.