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14 February 2014

Tim King: Why Europe beckons for Letta

Writing for European Voice, King says that the discarded Italian prime minister's ambiguous political antecedents make him a plausible candidate for European presidencies.

A lot depends on the outcome of the European Parliament elections, but Letta appears to have the potential to be a compromise candidate either for the presidency of the European Commission or for the presidency of the European Council.

The list of prerequisite qualifications for these presidencies is notoriously ill-defined, but it probably helps that Letta has been a minister of European affairs and a member of the European Parliament. He will be regarded by those who might come to nominate him as sufficiently knowledgeable about the EU. Just as importantly, his career path suggests that he cares about European politics and would want such a job. Another detail is that he is probably the right age. At 47, he is ten years younger than Barroso, who has been Commission president for nine-and-a-bit years.

But what makes Letta so intriguing as a European presidential candidate is the question of where to place him on the political spectrum. He has been leading a party that is now considered to be on the centre-left and therefore headed a centre-left government (albeit in coalition with centre-right and centrist parties). But Letta's political origins are in Italian Christian Democracy, which has since splintered to both left and right.

His first foray into European politics was as president of the youth wing of the European People's Party ie, the European party of the centre-right. When, last year, Klaus Welle, the secretary-general of the Parliament, wrote an appreciation of Wilfried Martens, long the president of the EPP, he gratuitously mentioned that he, Welle, had been chosen for a job by Martens that had once been earmarked for Letta (who had since withdrawn his candidacy). Or was it gratuitous? It was a reminder, mischievous perhaps, of Letta's EPP credentials.

When you consider that Letta, when he was an MEP, was a member of what is now the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, his cross-party credentials start to look impressive. Will those credentials matter? A lot will depend on the outcome of the elections to the European Parliament. But consider what might happen if there were, as many fear, a sizeable Eurosceptic contingent of MEPs in the new Parliament, with the liberals much reduced in size. Neither the centre-right nor the centre-left would be able to impose its candidate on the rest of the Parliament. How then would the European Council nominate someone for the Commission presidency “taking account” of the results of those elections?

Of all the names bandied around for either the Commission or Council presidency, Letta's might be the one that provokes least resistance. That is not a ringing endorsement, but it might be how European politics works. 

Full article (EV subscription required)

© European Voice

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