In a vote widely expected, MEPs have re-elected Martin Schulz as president of the European Parliament, but with the large number of eurosceptic voices in the new assembly, the German socialist will need to refine his strategic leadership.
Of 612 valid votes cast, 409 favored Schulz, after a deal was struck by the three main political groups. The German former bookstore manager was backed by the centre-right European People’s Party, the liberal ALDE and his own S&D group for the post. Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), Sajjad Karim (ECR) and Pablo Iglesias (GUE/NGL), the other candidates who tried to snatch the presidency, knowing they had little chance to win, deplored the backroom deal.
“What have we become if the Presidency of this house - an office that should rise above partisan politics and ordinary political ambition - is reduced to nothing more than a bargaining chip? A counter in a game? A consolation prize for failing to get a consolation prize? Plan D in a political life when plans A, B and C have failed?” said European Conservatives and Reformists candidate Sajjad Karim on the first session of the new Parliament.
In his acceptance speech, Schulz winked at those who did not vote for him and deplored the backroom deal. He vowed to be the president of those who have not supported him. “I hope to win the trust of those who did not put their trust on me today,” he said.
Grand coalition at play
The election of Schulz has indicated that future legislative deals will need to be backed by the three main pro-european political groups EPP, S&D and the ALDE to balance the large anti-establishment factions.
“There is a large majority of pro-Europeans in the Parliament,” said ALDE French MEP, Sylvie Goulard in an interview with EurActiv. “This is why the liberals have given their support to Schulz and did not come up with their own candidate. We want to show that there is a stable majority,” she added, stressing that Schulz had to be credited for making the European Parliament stronger, more visible and, least but not least, played a role in changing the way the president of the European Commission is being selected.
Schulz said that the parliament's success in introducing a system of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten from European political groups for EU elections in May marked a leap forward. That lead to the appointment of the Luxembourgish Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president, despite the opposition of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"The process has strengthened the European Parliament," he said, adding that it will cause major changes in Europe.
Cost of Non-Europe
However, parties of the far right and far left more than doubled their representation in the assembly, buoyed by resentment with Brussels over social malaise and rising unemployment.
And the new grand coalition, however grand, will face a constant heckling from anti-EU lawmakers. Although it is uncertain whether the large number anti-EU members will prefer to shout from the sidelines rather than engage in detailed work on policy, the mainstream parties will need to ensure greater discipline and cohesiveness to push the agenda forward.
Preparing the ground for future debates, the Parliament Research Service has started to work on the cost of Non-Europe . This concept is not new. It was the leitmotif of the landmark Cecchini Report in 1998, which helped provide a powerful economic rationale for the programme to complete the single market by the end of 1992.
Although some MEPs concede it is difficult to quantify, the on-going research suggests that the cumulative efficiency gain of series of policy actions at European level, when fully realised could represent some 800 billion euros. At current prices, that would amount to approximately 6% of GDP.
For example, the paper notes that a deeper and more complete the single market in the digital field could raise the EU28 GDP by at least 4.0 per cent or 260 billion euro. A more integrated energy market could boost GDP by 50 billion.
Completing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment agreement with the US could add on a 60 billion euros. But the debate will not be easy.
Another caveat for the new legislature could be the role of national parliaments, who demand a greater clout on EU affairs. Reflection is taking place in a number of parliaments across Europe on how to strengthen the relation with the European Parliament and boost democratic legitimacy.
The British House of Lords, the Danish Folketing and the Dutch Tweede Kamer, have started to push other assemblies across Europe, saying that a better involvement of MPs in the European decision-making process and concerted action can contribute to better representation of European voters, stronger accountability mechanisms .
“The objective lies in changing behaviour, not changing the Treaties,” said Rene Leegte, member of the Dutch Parliament, in charge of this new thinking in the Tweede Kamer.
The nub of the problem is structural, according to Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London.
“In attempting to enhance its own powers, the European parliament is acting like parliaments have throughout history. In defending their prerogatives, the member states are acting like normal nation states. The victim of the clash is the legitimacy of the EU system,” he said, adding that the future of European integration depends on it being linked more directly to national democratic politics.
The scholar notes that the democratic malaise afflicting European governance is unsustainable. “Member states rely on the EU to achieve key policy objectives. A gradual erosion of support for the Union threatens their ability to deliver these. Seeking democratic legitimacy via empowerment of the European Parliament has been repeatedly tried and has failed. The only alternative is to link the EU more closely with national political processes,” he concluded.
Reacting to the designation of Martin Schulz as European Parliament President via a deal between three political groups, GUE/NGL President Gabi Zimmer said: "We voted for our candidate - Spanish GUE/NGL MEP Pablo Iglesias - who offers a voice to the people who bear the burden of the EU's antisocial crisis policy. We fight for a Europe of solidarity, for an immediate end to austerity policies and the undemocratic dictates of the Troika. Pablo Iglesias calls for this necessary change much better and much more credibly than Martin Schulz wants or is able to do," she said.
"We will however expect the re-elected president to speak out for extensive cooperation between the groups in Parliament and to strengthen our role with regard to the Council of Heads of State and Government. For social justice, democracy and another EU."
Commenting on the election of Martin Schulz as president of the European Parliament for the first half of the legislative term, Greens/EFA co-presidents Rebecca Harms and Philippe Lamberts stated:
“The Greens/EFA group congratulates Martin Schulz on his re-election as European Parliament president. Whilst we regret the excessive interference of EU governments in the process for choosing the president of the EU's directly-elected legislature, we will look forward to working with Martin Schulz to defend Parliament's role in EU democracy and rebuild public trust in the EU and its institutions.
"Martin Schulz must prioritise rebuilding public trust in an open, transparent, greener and more ethical European Parliament that truly represents EU citizens and defends democracy and human rights at EU level. With EU governments seeking every opportunity to undermine the role of the EU's only directly-elected institution, the European Parliament and its president must stand up to them."
Commenting on the vote, Gianni Pittella, Italian S&D MEP and vice-president of the Group, said: "I am very happy that Martin Schulz has been elected as the president of the Parliament. In these turbulent economic and political times, it is crucial to have a strong and politically vocal president for this important institution.
"Martin Schulz led the Parliament with great success over the last term and will continue to do an excellent job in this essential post. In the light of the outcome of the European Parliament elections, it will be important to work with the democratic forces here for a better and socially just future for all EU citizens."
Enrique Guerrero Salom, Spanish S&D MEP and vice-president of the Group, said: "Martin Schulz is not only a committed social-democrat but also a true believer in democracy and the rule of law. I am proud that Martin Schulz has been elected as president of the European Parliament and I trust he will be able to use his position to defend EU values and democratic principles.
"In our daily parliamentary activities our Group will work for a change of policy in Europe. It is time to end the high unemployment and poverty reigning in most European countries. We have to take action to make the Europe of tomorrow more socially balanced and fair."
- 16 July: European Parliament holds a vote of confidence on Jean-Claude Juncker's nomination as President of the European Commission.