European Parliament opens amid protest and discord

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Media captionBrexit Party MEPs turned their backs as Ode to Joy was performed

The European Parliament has re-opened in Strasbourg with an anti-EU protest by the UK’s Brexit Party and a demonstration by Catalan nationalists whose MEPs are barred.

The first session after Europe-wide elections in May began as EU leaders went into a third day of talks on who should fill the bloc’s top jobs.

Several leaders said they were optimistic of a breakthrough.

Italy and eastern states rejected an earlier compromise deal.

What happened at the Parliament?

Outside parliament, hundreds of Catalan demonstrators protested that three separatist figures were unable to take their seats, as inside the chamber fellow MEPs placed three photos of the missing members on their desks.

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Protesters waved pictures of ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, now in exile in Brussels

Ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and colleague Toni Comin were barred from taking their seats because they fled to Brussels after a banned referendum on independence went ahead and did not attend a swearing-in ceremony in Madrid as required. Another separatist leader, Oriol Junqueras is on trial in Spain and in detention.

Irish Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy warned that the parliament’s credibility would be undermined if it did not stand up for the voters of Catalonia.

As outgoing speaker Antonio Tajani convened the new session, MEPs rose for the EU’s anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, accompanied by a saxophone quartet. But not everyone stood, and anti-EU MEPs from the UK’s Brexit Party turned their backs on the rendition.

“Rising to your feet is a matter of respect,” said Mr Tajani. “It does not mean that you necessarily share the views of the European Union. Even when you listen to the anthem of another country you rise to your feet.”

Their action came after party leader Nigel Farage promised a spirit of “cheerful defiance”.

Pro-EU Liberal Democrats staged their own stunt, wearing “Stop Brexit” T-shirts.

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Among the new intake was Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, 82

Will there be a summit deal?

EU leaders reconvened in Brussels for their third consecutive day after a reported compromise deal that would have seen Dutch Labour leader Frans Timmermans head the Commission with centre-right Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva taking the other key job of European Council president.

That deal fell apart when the four Visegrad states of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia blocked the plan, with the backing of Italy. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Mr Timmermans was “unacceptable” and a “total catastrophe”.

The initiative had been proposed by outgoing Council President Donald Tusk, who was seen heading for the talks with his mobile phone to his ear. It soon emerged that the talks had been delayed by two hours until 13:00 (11:00 GMT) as individual talks continued.

As Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte entered the Commission building, he said there had been lots of phone calls and text messages overnight and on Tuesday morning.

“I hope a majority will eventually be found for someone, in combination with how the other jobs will be filled,” he told reporters.

While Italy’s Giuseppe Conte said he would be very happy with a woman as Commission president, German’s Angela Merkel said everyone would “have to shift a little”.

Why is it so hard to find a solution?

Political horse-trading has always been part of choosing the names for the top EU jobs, but EU elections at the end of May have shifted influence away from the two biggest groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right EPP and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

The EPP is standing by its candidate for the Commission job, Manfred Weber, because it won most seats and so he won the Parliament’s Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) race.

But the liberal Renew Europe group has seen big gains, bolstered by the arrival of the ruling party of French President Emmanuel Macron, and the Greens have themselves grown stronger.

That is why Mr Weber’s candidacy looks spent and other figures such as Mr Timmermans and Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager are being considered.

It is not just the Commission presidency that is part of the discussion. The leaders also need to agree on four other top posts: European Council president (to replace Donald Tusk); High Representative for foreign policy (to replace Federica Mogherini); European Parliament president and European Central Bank president.

The European Parliament will elect a president on Wednesday, placing further pressure on the EU leaders. MEPs will also have to approve the leaders’ eventual nomination for Commission chief.

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