We need more dark horses to enter the Parliament presidency race

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

It has been a bumper year for elections – whatever one may think of their outcomes – and now an unscheduled one looms on the EU horizon.

The surprise decision by Martin Schulz to step down as President of the European Parliament and seek his political fortune back home in Germany introduces yet another factor of volatility in Brussels.

Media headlines tend to highlight the personalities in contention, but the most important issue may well turn out to be the democratic process itself. Right now, the main focus in the Schulz succession race is the unexpected decision by French MEP Sylvie Goulard to challenge Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberal candidacy for the Parliament’s top job.

Former Belgian premier Verhofstadt is a political veteran who now must face down competition from one of the Liberals’ up-and-coming names.

Aged 51, Goulard has won widespread respect as a comparatively youthful writer and commentator on the European political economy, as well as being a redoubtable parliamentarian. (In the interests of full disclosure, she, like Verhofstadt, is also one of the 50 or so members of Friends of Europe’s Board of Trustees.)

“The process is really about the comfortable accommodations between party managers that exist inside the Parliament”

Liberal MEPs’ choice of candidate is about much more than these two hopefuls. The process of choosing a successor to Martin Schulz for the increasingly powerful post of Parliament president is really about the comfortable accommodations between party managers that exist inside the Parliament.

The Parliament presidency has long been a stitch-up between the centre-right European People’s Party group (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats. They’ve been taking it in turns to occupy the job for most of the last six decades: only five of the 25 presidents have come from outside these groups, the last being more than a decade ago.

The European Union’s democratic credentials are notoriously shaky, of course. To boost its credibility, a new form of election was devised in 2014 to determine who should become president of the European Commission. Of the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ put forward by the transnational parties, the EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker was unsurprisingly chosen over Schulz and Verhofstadt.

Tentative and minor attempts like this to democratise the process of filling the EU’s top jobs impress few people. If anything, they must share some of the blame for the dramatic advances enjoyed by populist parties across Europe.

Whether a Liberal MEP can succeed in breaking the mould of recent Socialist-EPP dominance by becoming president of the European Parliament remains to be seen. What matters far more is that the EU’s institutions should brace themselves for radical reform. It may well be that popular elections for the Commission presidency are impractical, but convincing moves towards making the selection process more transparent cannot be avoided indefinitely.

“Tentative and minor attempts like the Spitzenkandidaten process impress few people”

A first step towards this will be to ensure that it is not only the EU’s old war horses who contest its most important posts. The sense of behind-closed-doors deals has to be confronted by a much more open process. Sylvie Goulard’s apparently unwelcome defiance of Verhofstadt’s ‘incumbency’ of their party’s choice of candidate should be mirrored by younger newcomers becoming the Socialist and EPP contenders.

It’s time for Europe’s mainstream political parties to stop bemoaning the successes of populists on both the far right and far left, and instead respond in ways that will win back electoral support. That means abandoning practices within the EU that, rightly or wrongly, look to outsiders like political fixes.

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