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European Parliament's presidential candidate Antonio Tajani attends the election of the new President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann(reuters_tickers)
By Francesco Guarascio
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Antonio Tajani of Italy was elected president of the European Parliament on Tuesday, consolidating a conservative grip on key European Union institutions as the mainstream right and left struggle to unite against eurosceptics.
The new speaker, a 63-year-old former EU commissioner and ally of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, relied for his victory on support from the ruling conservative parties of Britain and Poland, which are sharply critical of the EU.
They argue that the EU impinges on national sovereignty and see it as bureaucratic and wasteful. To get their final backing Tajani issued a statement saying solutions to the EU's problems "are not found in more and more Europe," an unusual remark for a president of an institution that has traditionally been a bulwark of EU integration.
But he also said solutions are not to be found in blowing up the EU project.
Tajani, a former journalist, succeeds German Social Democrat Martin Schulz at a time of crisis for the EU. Britain wants a divorce deal that needs the legislature's blessing while old adversary Russia and old ally the United States both pose new threats to EU survivors holding together.
Schulz's tenure saw close cooperation with the centre-right head of the EU executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, but ended with recriminations over the end of a decade-long left-right grand coalition.
That could spell trouble for the smooth passage of EU laws on a range of issues, and has been seen as giving a potentially greater voice to eurosceptics bolstered by Britain's vote last year to quit the EU.
The new coalition that will run the legislature will rely on an awkward alliance between sceptic conservatives and pro-EU centre-right and liberal lawmakers.
In what was seen as a further concession to British conservatives, the liberal Guy Verhofstadt, the parliament's negotiator on Brexit, will be flanked by more powerful parliament committees in the talks, Tajani said after his election.
Parliament will have to sign off on the exit deal with Britain, probably by late 2018 or early 2019, just as lawmakers are campaigning for an EU-wide legislative election in May 2019.
Reacting to a call from Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday for Britain to keep extensive free access to the EU market while shedding many of its obligations, Verhofstadt said she was offering an "illusion" and dealing in "threats".
Tajani beat centre-left leader and fellow Italian Gianni Pittella by 351 votes to 282 in a rare fourth-round runoff, contrary to past appointments decided by mainstream parties before the voting.
The fracture with the socialists, the second-largest party in the parliament, is likely to worsen if the right keeps its hold on all top three pivotal EU political institutions following Tajani's win.
The socialists have called for change from either Juncker at the European Commission or Donald Tusk, who chairs the European Council of national leaders and whose mandate ends in May. However, there is no clear consensus for such changes.
Tajani, mindful of the scars left by an unusually bruising battle over a post which can be a powerful influence on which EU rules are made, promised to be "a president for all of you".
(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Mark Heinrich and James Dalgleish)