On January 17th the European Parliament will elect its next president. This used not to be a ‘hold the front page’ moment but it is a tribute to the outgoing President, Martin Schulz, that there is now much greater awareness of the post, and its importance. His own decision not to stand for an unprecedented third term having already served an unprecedented second was headline news in Germany, France and the UK.
Detractors of Mr. Schulz (and for someone of such impeccably moderate views he is a controversial figure) say that the benefits of his presidency were largely a boost to his personal profile rather than to Parliament itself, and that the ‘grand coalition’ of the centre-right (the EPP), the Centre Left (the PES) and the centre (ALDE) – put together to bolster support for Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker – has ended up sidelining Parliament and muffling its voice. As examples they cite the unusually muted reaction to WikiLeaks, or the failure by MEPs to press for the sacking of Mr. Oettinger, after his outrageous slurs against the Chinese, women and gays. On the latter point, that the German Commissioner appears to have got off so lightly (with potentially getting a promotion rather than the boot) is put down to his nationality and support from the Chancellor. In another era the Socialists would have demanded his head. After all Mr. Buttiglione was consigned to oblivion for far less. It is also alleged that the coalition in place has led to a certain cross-party cosiness when it comes to ‘the division of the spoils’. From these criticisms many – not only those in smaller political groups excluded from the current arrangements – argue that these coalitions between the larger groups are in some way anti-democratic and against the interests of the EP.
Some of these criticisms display a general misunderstanding of the very nature of politics. There is nothing new or indeed ‘shocking’ about cooperation between different political forces. Back in the 1970s, such understandings were indispensable in Parliament’s Long March for political power. And when it won its powers, their exercise required building majorities in Parliament to ensure that legislation and the budget bore the imprint of the legislature. A cooperative habit developed. As part of this, power sharing in the Parliament – with an understanding about its presidency – was a natural development. So, in the 1989, 1994, 2004, 2009 and 2014 legislatures, the two main groups reached an agreement, sometimes called technical, sometimes more programmatic, which included rotating the presidency of Parliament between them, with the 5 year term split between their respective candidates.
The first mandate (1979-1984) stands out as an exception, with the first president, Simone Veil, elected because of her totemic status, and on an understanding reached between President Giscard and Chancellor Schmidt. And her successor, Piet Dankert, won in 1982 because backbenchers saw him as the local hero thanks to his budget battles. The absence of pacts between the socialists and the EPP in 1984 and 1999 was due more to a failure to reach agreement than for want of trying.
The precise nature of the agreement on the presidency for the 2014 legislature remains a closely guarded secret, the lost protocols of Strasbourg. That an agreement was necessary is not in serious dispute. Had Parliament not closed ranks to support the Juncker Commission its gains during the spitzenkandidaten process would have been undermined. And the political groups in the EP managed to shape the Commission’s work programme to reflect their political priorities. Part of the MEPs’ motivation was to build a pro-European fire wall against eurosceptics and populist now a greater threat than ever. If the pro-Europeans do not work together then EU business could be disrupted.
The terms of the accord being unknown, we are in the dark as to whether there was a clear link between the EP presidency for the second term and the fact that the presidency of the Commission and of the European Council were both to end up in the hands of the EPP. This is an area of dispute between the socialists and the centre-right.
What is clear is that within the socialist ranks there has been growing concern about the costs of the coalition. Supporting the Juncker Commission with constant compromise and muting criticism have added to more general worries about the eroding of bedrock support for the centre left throughout the EU. Grand coalitions require some grandeur, some shared objective, not just day to day damage limitation: this one now looks threadbare.
So the Socialists have decided on break out and are fielding their own candidate, the group leader, Gianni Pittella. Attempts to construct an alternative coalition with the ALDE (Liberal) leader, Guy Verhofstadt appear for the moment to have foundered. It could well be that this drama will go right up to the wire in this four-round election, with the runners whittled down to just two on the last round. Seasoned observers recall that shifts between rounds can lead to upsets at the last fence. One candidate may underperform in the early rounds, another may exceed expectations and gain momentum.
A former Secretary General of the institution should be diffident about but not indifferent to the outcome of this contest. But he cannot restrain himself from making a few remarks.
The presidency is itself now an office of importance, its significance having grown over many years, not just the last five. Speakers or presidents of parliaments in the EU have very different roles, from the strict impartiality which shies away from controversy which is the Nordic (and UK) model, to political protagonism in France, Italy and Spain. The EP’s growing role, and the separation of powers in the EU has contributed to making the EP president a political figure in his or her own right. What Mr. Schulz added to the presidency was his political drive and the unparalleled network of assiduously cultivated relations with the leading decision-makers in Europe.
His successor has to fill these shoes. And guide the EP in the run-up to crucial elections in 2019 when the populist and Eurosceptic threat may be at its greatest. The Parliament has to make its political and institutional presence felt more strongly in the second than in the first half of this mandate so that voters understand that something important happens in the EP, and that protest votes could well then be wasted votes. So the specific positions of Parliament need greater definition but short of provoking an institutional crisis which would just add to the impression of a dysfunctional Europe already beset by the problems of refugees, immigration, the aftermath of austerity, terrorism and now of course Brexit.
I recently talked about the Juncker Commission running out of steam. The Parliament needs to regain a greater independence of action without further contributing to the Commission’s woes. This is a delicate process which requires surefooted leadership from the new president.
If one was writing a job description the qualifications required for the job would be: ‘confirmed political experience and knowledge of the EU institutions; political courage, and a spirit of independence: and an ability to communicate.’ (After all Mr. Schulz famously knows how to shout in at least four languages).
Finally the next occupant of the ninth floor of the Spaak building in Brussels will need to be an inclusive figure, ensuring that his or her presidency is seen as evenhanded between the MEPs from 28 nationalities, ensuring a sense that MEPs count whichever their national background, and reflecting this European approach to his own office and in future administrative appointments.
And those who have called time on the grand coalition are playing for high stakes. They need to ensure that they win this battle. Breaking up the coalition only makes sense if it means change, and that requires all those who will change to work together. Mr. Pittella is a popular MEP. Mr. Verhofstadt has a political CV which commands respect. One or other may be able to reach out beyond their respective groups to defeat the EPP front-runner. One or other. But not both.