EU assembly gets first president from Eastern Europe

STRASBOURG, France Tue Jul 14, 2009 12:17pm EDT

1 of 4. Newly elected European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek of Poland is applauded by members of EU parliament at the EU parliament in Strasbourg July 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

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STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The European Parliament elected ex-Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek as its president on Tuesday, making him the first leader from a former Soviet bloc country to hold one of the top European Union posts.

Buzek, 69, won the parliament's overwhelming support at its first session since a June election at which his center-right allies emerged as the strongest force but voters showed their discontent with EU leaders with a record-low turnout.

Although the post is largely ceremonial, his appointment is a symbolic victory for the new EU member states from eastern and central Europe which often complain their views are not heard by the 27-nation Union's traditional powers.

"I see my election as a sign to these countries. I also regard it as a tribute to millions of citizens of our countries who did not bow to a hostile system," Buzek told the 736-member assembly in the French city of Strasbourg.

"There is no you and us. This is now our shared Europe."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also hailed Buzek's election as a sign that European integration had been a success since eight countries from eastern and central Europe joined the EU in 2004. Two more became members in 2007.

"Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down, five years after enlargement, your election today is, I think, a resounding victory for a united Europe," Barroso told the parliament.

Buzek won 555 of the votes cast, defeating leftist candidate Eva-Britt Svensson of Sweden, who won 89 votes. He will serve a term of 2-1/2 years under a deal among parliamentary groups which will allow a Socialist candidate to hold the post for the second half of the parliament's five-year mandate.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Buzek is the first leader from eastern Europe to head one of the EU's three big institutions -- the European Parliament, whose main function is to pass legislation, the executive European Commission and the Council of EU heads of government.

Buzek, who was a member of the Solidarity trade union that ended Communist rule in Poland and prime minister from 1997 to 2001, told the assembly it must now help end Europe's economic crisis and win the trust of the nearly 500 million Europeans.

"We have to realize we are in crisis now. Europeans are expecting a resolution of this problem," he said.

He also underlined the importance of all EU member states approving the Lisbon treaty, which is intended to overhaul EU institutions and streamline decision-making. Ireland holds a referendum on the treaty on October 2.

The assembly's priorities include tightening regulation of the financial system to help prevent another global economic crisis and helping the EU agree a common position for talks in Copenhagen on a new global deal to limit harmful emissions.

Its approval is also needed for the EU's annual budget, for the appointment of a new European Commission -- whose five-year term expires in November -- and for the re-appointment of Barroso for a new term as Commission president.

Parliament has put off a vote on Barroso because of opposition to his candidacy from the left, the Greens and some Liberals, but Buzek said he hoped the stand-off would end as quickly as possible.

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