The European Parliament could lose its second president to domestic politics in just over a year if Silvio Berlusconi succeeds in putting the Italian center-right back in power in next spring’s election.
Although he denies it, Antonio Tajani looks set to follow Martin Schulz’s example and use the Parliament presidency as a springboard into national politics — though the Italian conservative should hope for more success than Schulz, a Social Democrat who lost heavily in last month’s German election.
The scenario, according to conservative politicians close to Tajani, is this: If Berlusconi’s Forza Italia comes out ahead in next year’s election, the 81-year-old tycoon cannot take office himself (for what would be his fourth term as prime minister) because of a conviction for tax fraud.
Casting around for loyal lieutenants to run the country in Berlusconi’s place, his former spokesman Tajani would be an obvious choice for prime minister or foreign minister.
“Nobody has ever talked to me about it, and anyway I’m not interested,” Tajani told POLITICO in an interview a few weeks ago. “Nobody asked me and I didn’t ask.”
“I’m the president of the European Parliament,” Tajani said. “And I believe my duty is to remain at the European Parliament.” His 2-1/2 year term would normally last until 2019, when there are European Parliament elections and the top jobs at the Commission, Council and Parliament will be up for renewal.
“I am convinced he will have political ambitions in Italy” — MEP Frank Engel
Tajani’s strenuous denials have not managed to quell talk of his domestic ambitions, and his frequent trips back to Italy suggest he is trying to raise his profile after a long spell in Brussels.
For Massimiliano Salini, an MEP from Forza Italia who is close to the Parliament president, “there is no doubt” that Tajani would take the bait if Berlusconi asked him to go back to Rome. “It’s impossible to tell Berlusconi and Tajani apart as a duo,” he said.
‘He will obey’
With opinion polls suggesting Berlusconi’s center right is gaining ground, at the expense of the ruling center-left Democratic Party, a new electoral law now winding its way through parliament makes the Berlusconi-Tajani scenario more likely.
Boosting the role of coalitions, the law will make life more difficult for the anti-establishment 5Star Movement, which scores well in polls but tends to unite its enemies. In an unsettled political landscape, Berlusconi remains the best-known brand, prompting speculation about surrogates where Tajani’s name repeatedly tops the list.
“There’s no point denying that his success at the European Parliament makes his name prominent among those eligible [for the premiership],” said Salini, who sees Berlusconi himself leading the Forza Italia campaign and then potentially calling on Tajani if he manages to oust the Democratic Party.
Like Schulz, Tajani’s career in the European Commission and Parliament hasn’t give him much visibility in his homeland, which he is now visiting so assiduously that it looks “as if he was in an election campaign,” according to Marco Damilano, a political analyst and deputy director of the Italian weekly L’Espresso.
Despite a 30-year career in politics, Tajani “is not well known by Italians and his name is not even tested by pollsters,” said Damilano. But if Berlusconi beckons, either before or after the election campaign, “he will obey, I take it for granted,” said Damilano, who sees Tajani better suited to the foreign ministry role.
This view is shared by conservatives beyond the Italosphere: Frank Engel, a European People’s Party MEP from Luxembourg, said it is unusual for Parliament presidents to serve two terms, though Schulz almost managed it. “I am convinced he will have political ambitions in Italy,” said Engel.
‘Two soccer stadiums’
Tajani doesn’t deny having strong bonds with his home country, but he and his backers dispute any suggestion that he does so at the neglect of his parliamentary duties.
“I don’t deny having a particular attention to Italy,” Tajani told POLITICO. “I was elected by the Italian people … 120,000 people in Italy wrote my name on an electoral ballot, which is two soccer stadiums. I answer to these people.”
The Parliament president said he has visited 14 EU countries since being elected to the post in January. One Parliament official close to Schulz said the German, who has been a member of the Social Democrats’ national leadership since 1999, used to travel home just as frequently as Tajani does without such a fuss being made. Engel of the EPP reckons Schulz traveled home more often than Tajani.
“Sometimes there is a bias against Italians,” said Tajani. “Somebody asked my office if there was Italian sparkling water in the Parliament’s restaurant because I have imposed it.”
“I didn’t even know that there was,” he said. “It’s unfair.”
One Tajani intervention that did ruffle feathers in Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt came this week, when he sent a letter to the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, arguing that EU lawmakers should be involved in drawing up rules for the non-performing loans of banks in the eurozone.
Given the sanctity in EU circles of the central bank’s independence, Tajani risked disapproval by putting his marker on an issue that is a big deal in Italy, where the incidence of non-performing loans is very high.
One Parliament official, speaking anonymously, said Tajani had failed to give prior warning to Burkhard Balz, the EPP MEP who deals with European Central Bank issues in the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, which “raised eyebrows” among lawmakers. An official close to Tajani denied this, saying the key representatives of that committee were informed. Neither Manfred Weber nor Gianni Pittella, the leaders of the EPP and Socialist groups in the Parliament were informed, two officials said.
Gentiloni of the center-right
While Tajani is loyal to Berlusconi, his career offers a sober contrast to that of the flamboyant billionaire, with not a whiff of the sleaze and scandals that became a Berlusconi trademark.
If Tajani does become prime minister, it will be a triumph for someone who has repeatedly come up short in Italian elections.
There is no doubting Tajani’s right-wing pedigree: The Italian daily La Stampa recently reported that his family has close links to Pietro Badoglio, one of Benito Mussolini’s generals.
But some of the Italian media have taken to describing Tajani as “the Paolo Gentiloni of the center right,” referring to the current prime minister’s soft manners and cautious approach, which have boosted his standing in opinion polls. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Tajani and Gentiloni attended the same Rome high school — the Tasso Liceo.
If Tajani does become prime minister, it will be a triumph for someone who has repeatedly come up short in Italian elections. He was voted into the European Parliament in 1994, but failed to get elected to the Italian parliament in 1996 and failed in a bid for mayor of Rome in 2001, when Berlusconi scored a landslide victory across the country but not in the capital.
Giulia Paravicini contributed to this article.