Important elections took place this month – a new President of the European Parliament was elected, as were the heads of its legislative committees. However, while they generated plenty of gossip and back-room political fixing in Planet Eurocrat, few outside the Brussels bubble will have known or cared.
The European Parliament is not a sexy institution. With a couple of honourable exceptions, the Parliament is largely devoid of glamour politicians, preferring instead to concentrate on using its law-making powers and trying to increase its control over the Commission. This is fair enough – despite what some of its protagonists might think, politics is about law-making not showbiz – and, having worked in several other Parliaments, I reckon that the EP is often unfairly criticised, particularly in the British press. Although it can have the perception of being remote, the Parliament has made itself very accessible. Anyone can watch a plenary session or committee either online or in person, while Parliamentary reports, amendments, questions and speeches are also easily available.
But when it comes to the elections for its key positions the Parliament does not help itself. Politicians that laud themselves as being the elected representatives of the peoples of Europe divvy up the top jobs like a bunch of used car dealers or, much, much worse, student politicians. There are no open elections for the Parliament’s presidency – instead the EPP and the Socialist group take it in turns to put up the winning candidate.
Meanwhile, the rest of the positions are divided up in a grand deal at the start of the legislative term by the main political groups. After the EPP and the Socialist group have decided who’s going to be President, the committee posts are then divided up amongst the largest national delegations. It’s good news if you are German, French or British, but MEPs from the smaller member states are completely shut out of the picture.
The other problem with the system is that it creates far too many titles. By my count – albeit off the top of my head – there are over 100 Vice-Presidents in the EP, including fourteen Vice-Presidents of the Parliament. And that’s not to mention the five Quaestor’s, with their titles straight out of the Harry Potter novels.
Of course, most political deals are still done in smoke-filled rooms by ‘the men in grey suits’, and I don’t expect that many people are going to lose sleep over who the next Chairs of the Budgetary Control or Petitions committees are going to be. But the election of the Parliament’s President and the big committees – such as Foreign Affairs, Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Internal Market – should be open and transparent.
That is why the Parliament’s ‘elections’ need to be proper contests. No more stitch-ups, no more election by acclamation. The truth is that even without the deal with the EPP, Socialist Martin Schultz would have easily beaten British Liberal Diana Wallis and Conservative Nirj Deva as Parliament’s President. But MEPs and citizens deserve an open contest. So hopefully messrs Daul, Swoboda and Verhofstadt can get together in a smoke-filled room and make a deal to end the deals.