Speculation rife over next EU Parliament chief
Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister now turned MEP, confirmed his interest in chairing the next Parliament to emerge from the European elections in 2009 but denied reports that a secret arrangement had been struck to put him in the prestigious post.
Speaking to EurActiv, Buzek said there was "not a bit of truth" in reports by the German daily Handelsblatt on 21 April, reporting that the leaders of the two dominant political groups in Parliament - the centre-right EPP-ED and the Socialist Group - had struck an agreement that will see him succeed the incumbent Hans-Gert Pöttering after the European elections next year.
"This discussion comes 14 months too early. There can be no agreement until after the elections next year," Buzek said, adding that there had been no talks so far on this issue among the political parties.
However, he did not rule out being selected for the job "among several other highly-qualified candidates" and admitted feeling honoured by being mentioned for this high-level position.
The Parliament chief traditionally originates from the political force which comes out strongest in the European elections. However, as part of a power-sharing deal, the job is usually held successively by the centre-right EPP-ED and the Socialists, with a swap taking place at the mid-term of the five-year legislature.
Last time this happened was January 2007, when German conservative Hans-Gert Pöttering succeeded Josep Borrell Fontelles, a Spanish socialist, in the chair. The agreement was concluded because neither of the two major groups had the absolute majority of MEPs (345 members) needed to get a candidate elected.
But the deal was criticised by the ALDE group, the third largest in Parliament. "Liberals and Democrats opposed the deal at the beginning of this mandate between Christian Democrats and Socialists as unnatural," said Graham Watson, a speaker for ALDE. He added that 2007, the 50th year of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, was "an appropriate year to seriously begin this [reform] process".
A President from one of the 'new' member states?
Commenting on the next Parliament chief, Buzek expressed his hope that the Chair be handed to an MEP from one of the new EU member states, making a case for his home country Poland. Although he added that in the end "it is not nationality or political colour that matters but simply personal qualification".
According to Handelsblatt, Buzek – a well-respected figure - received the backing of the German Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialists in the Parliament, who has himself been traded as potential candidate for the job and never denied his interest.
In exchange for his support, Schulz could hope to succeed Buzek in the second half of the term, the newspaper said, as it is highly unlikely that another German would be accepted to succeed Pöttering.
Schulz's office denied that such a deal exists, saying that there would be no talks until after the next elections. "Prior deals are against the democratic tradition of the European Parliament," Schulz's spokesperson told EurActiv.
A Parliament source called all this speculation about the parliament president "totally premature", adding that "all depends on the balance of power and the circumstances next year".
The smaller parties were, however, alarmed by the report on a prior-election agreement, fearing they could be left on the sideline again. "If this report really turned out to be true, it would reveal a very odd understanding of politics," the German Green MEP Cem Özdemir told EurActiv.
The president of the European Parliament will hold one of the four key EU positions that will be up for grabs in 2009 after the European elections in June (together with the newly-invented EU President, the President of the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy).
The decision is likely to be made as part of a "package deal" among the 27 EU countries, which will also include the other three posts.
Apart from his qualifications, EU heads of state and government will have to take into account the nationality and political affiliation of the candidates. However, it remains to be seen how the balance of power might change in the Parliament after the next elections in June 2009.
"We do not have any problems with either Buzek nor Schulz. They are both indeed highly-respected. What bugs us is the lack of democratic behaviour which is being demonstrated by such deals," said German Green MEP Cem Özdemir. He also showed sympathy for the idea of having a figure from the new member states in one of the EU's leading posts.
Despite his appreciation for Buzek and Schulz, Özdemir stressed that "other parties also have capable candidates" - although he admitted that it is highly unlikely that a candidate of the smaller groups will eventually be chosen.
The ALDE Group in the Parliament has long been opposed to the trade-offs taking place between the two largest political groups. Its leader, Graham Watson, who has openly expressed his interest for the job, told EurActiv that "there should be a political balance between christian democrats, socialists and liberals" (EurActiv 17/04/08).
"Inevitably the party which wins the European elections will want to claim at least the President of the Commission and possibly another post as well. But it is not beyond the wit of our political leaders to come up with a solution which advances the interest of the European Union. In other words, which makes sure that competent people are appointed to the top jobs, but also respects the political balance," Watson said.
- 1 Jan. 2009: Lisbon Treaty expected to enter into force, provided all 27 member states have ratified it.
- June 2009: European Parliament elections.