We are in kind of unusual situation when we do not know who will be the next President of the European Parliament. How do you read the fact that this time there is no agreement among the biggest groups, do you think it may have some effect on the EU, on institution and their work? Read few comments.
Katjana Gattermann, Assistant Professor Political Communication & Journalism, Amsterdam Centre for Contemporary European Studies (ACCESS EUROPE), University of Amsterdam
Indeed, this is the first time that there are candidates from several European party families who compete for the office of President of the European Parliament. There are seven candidates in total. Alongside candidates from the major political groups, the list of candidates also includes a candidate from the Eurosceptic Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, one from the Eurosceptic left group GUE/NGL and another one from the Green Party Group.
There actually was an agreement at the beginning of the current legislative term between the two biggest party groups S&D and EPP that the next President would come from the EPP succeeding Martin Schulz from the S&D. This agreement was based on informal political practice in the previous years.
However, this time the S&D had criticized that, if a member of the EPP became EP President, then all major political posts in the EU (Commission President, President of the Council and EP President) would be held by members of the EPP. So, they put forward their own candidate. Other parties followed and nominated additional candidates. Currently it is unclear who will win the election as no candidate has an absolute majority.
In my view, this is an interesting and important development with regards to the relationship between the EU and its citizens. Importantly, it adds political contestation to previously rather sticky institutional procedures regarding the agreement between the two main groups. Although the role of the EP President is rather representational in nature, Martin Schulz also added a political dimension to the role. By that, he has given EU supranational politics a “face”. This is important because EU politics is rather removed from EU citizens: the institutions are different from national political institutions and the decision-making processes are rather lengthy and complex in which individuals are hard to identify. But political personalities make the EU less distant and less abstract and thereby more accessible for its citizens. See also my research project on the personalization of EU politics.
Thus, the role has gained importance from a public point of view. And contestation also sets expectations with respect to keeping the political interpretation of the role or even further developing that role. In that sense, the election contest adds elements of responsiveness and accountability between the President and members of Parliament – especially if the newly elected candidate was to decide to stand again in the next election in 2019. So, this procedure could strengthen the linkage between EU politics and EU citizens because a) there is something at stake in terms of political positions; and b) citizens may also see that their votes in European Parliament elections also indirectly affect the appointment of the President because an open contest is different from the previous agreement to appoint a candidate for President behind closed doors. This latter aspect is perhaps a bit more important when it comes to the Spitzenkandidaten procedure and the election of the Commission President in 2014, because he has more powers than the EP President. However, this contest is another indicator of the personalization of EU politics, whereby individual politicians come into focus at the expense of institutions.
I do not think that the new procedure to nominate and elect the EP President has any negative consequences for the relationship between EU institutions. The role of EP President is formalized and does not offer much leeway in terms of political powers. So, it should not affect the day-to-day work. Yet, the President also gives the EP a voice on behalf of EU citizens whom the EP represents, as we have seen with Martin Schulz. This is especially important in times of political crises (e.g., against the backdrop of Brexit).
In general, I think this is a healthy development for the EU. Contestation is positive for political discourse. Moreover, this contest also takes into account that there are different political views toward European integration both among citizens and political parties. Rather than leaving the post up to pro-European and mainstream candidates, putting the office of the EP President to contest is a healthy development for European democracy, even though we are likely to see another pro-European President from one of the bigger party families given the majorities in the EP.