Sylvie Goulard takes on male-dominated establishment in EP presidency race

Sylvie Goulard [European Parliament]

The French liberal MEP will have to convince her group to nominate her, rather than ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstad. Since 1979, 87% of the European Parliament’s presidents have been men. EURACTIV France reports.

Despite its readiness to speak up for gender equality, the European Parliament has almost always been run by men. In the last 37 years, the institution has been presided over by two women and 12 men.

And these two women only had half mandates: Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine held the presidency for just five years between them. But this “do as I say, not as I do” approach to politics has worn thin, and many MEPs see the departure of Martin Schulz as an opportunity for change.

Centrist MEP Sylvie Goulard decided to kick the anthill and stand for the presidency, partly to draw attention to the issue of gender imbalance. But there are other reasons too.

“Before thinking about the names of the candidates, we should think about the job itself. How should we preside over the Parliament after Trump and Erdogan, after Brexit?” Goulard asked. She wants a “real discussion to take place”, making a clean break from the past.

In her candidacy declaration, the MEP proposed a new mission for the European Parliament: to rekindle enthusiasm for the European project by looking outward to European citizens, rather than inward to Brussels, and avoiding collusion with the Commission. This is a far broader mission than simply representing the institution.

But her candidacy is a real race against the clock, because Schulz’s replacement must be chosen in January 2017 and the ALDE group will this week begin choosing its candidate.

Latent misogyny?

Upon news of Schulz’s withdrawal, all eyes immediately turned to ALDE leader Verhofstadt.

A chauvinist knee-jerk? “Of course not, it’s just that he has dreamed of this for ten years,” said a Parliament source. The potential candidate has already been overlooked for the presidency several times. But should this preclude any debate over the liberal candidacy?

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has often been heard holding forth on the merits of equality. Yet since its creation, the European executive has systematically been run by men.

“How can we motivate young women, who make up the majority of our graduates, if they are still being blocked by the glass ceiling?” Goulard asked, insisting that the next candidate be chosen on merit.

Like Schulz, Goulard is a polyglot and regularly appears in the English, German and even Italian media.

To top it all, the war of succession that has now well and truly begun has fallen victim to all the usual clichés. On the right, the EPP has seven candidates, only one of which is a woman, the Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness.

“Her main quality is that she is a woman,” said one of her EPP colleagues, not without a hint of misogyny. French Republican MEP Alain Lamassoure is also standing for the presidency.

A transparency problem

The lack of transparency in the campaign for the Parliament’s top job is also a mobilising factor for the smaller political groups. The two main groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) often come to an agreement between themselves, with the backing of Paris, Berlin and Brussels, without consulting the rest of the MEPs.

“As for any election, it is healthy to organise a real debate on what the European Parliament can do. In light of the state that Europe is in, it would be a bad idea to avoid this,” said Jean Arthuis, a French ALDE MEP.

A mysterious agreement was apparently reached between Schulz, Verhofstad and Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, stipulating that Schulz would renounce the leadership mid-mandate, whatever happened.

The EPP’s repeated references to this deal in recent weeks undoubtedly had a part to play in the president’s decision not to run for a third term. But again, it was made outside the democratic oversight of the majority of MEPs.

If a centrist candidate is to be a serious contender for the presidency, they will have to form alliances and make concessions: the party only has 70 MEPs and will have to canvas members of other groups, particularly the EPP, if it is to have a chance of winning a plenary vote.

Such a debate could further weaken the so-called “grand coalition”, which is already suffering from the many conflicts that have shaken Europe over the last two and a half years.

European Parliament

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