Prominent Eastern European MEPs feel their countries are under-represented on European Parliament committee executives, EURACTIV has learned. Meanwhile, as horsetrading drew to a close, it emerged that France had punched below its weight, according to experts.
As reported by EURACTIV (EURACTIV 09/07/09), the negotiations to determine which MEP from which group gets which chair have traditionally taken place behind closed doors and result in a complex interplay of hierarchies to determine the final balance: criteria include large vs. small countries, the weight of the political group, the stature and profile of the MEP, and gender balance.
On this occasion, however, it seems that a number of prominent politicians are unhappy with the balance between ‘old’ and ‘new’ EU member states heading committees.
Notwithstanding the fact that an Eastern European will for the first time be parliament president (EURACTIV 14/07/09), just one committee will be chaired by a ‘new’ country MEP, the regional development committee under Danuta Hübner. It has not gone ignored among other ‘new’ countries that both these high-profile MEPs, a former prime minister and a former commissioner, are from Poland.
Speaking to EURACTIV yesterday, Bulgarian Socialist MEP Ivaylo Kalfin bemoaned the final choice, expressing the frustration felt by many new-country MEPs, particularly from small countries, that they are under-represented in the Parliament’s positions of power.
Kalfin, who until days ago was his country’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, told EURACTIV that the reason for the modest representation of East Europeans in committees was to some extent technical.
“The main reason is the d’Hondt method [the highest averages method for allocating seats in party-list proportional representation, named after Belgian mathematician Victor d’Hondt], which guarantees the highest seats to representatives of the largest countries,” Kalfin said.
But he added: “When you come from a small country for the first time to the European Parliament, where few people know who you are or your qualifications, your chances significantly decrease.”
Nevertheless, Kalfin – who is himself a newcomer to the Parliament – succeeded in obtaining the vice-chairmanship of the powerful budget committee.
His point was echoed by Elaine Cruikshanks, CEO at Hill & Knowlton Brussels and chair of H&K Western Continental Europe, who told EURACTIV that strength of personality is something you see counting “again and again” in the Parliament, as the assembly is a “consensual institution and people have to be able to work across groups”.
Likewise Russell Patten, chief executive of Brussels consultancy Grayling, indicated that new-country MEPs still have some distance to travel on the European Parliament learning curve before they attain the status of more established MEPs. Speaking to EURACTIV, Grayling’s boss said “if you look back at the last five years, if we’re honest, many of the MEPs from ‘new’ countries were disappointing in the way they handled various briefs. It took many of them a couple of years just to get used to the way the Parliament works”.
He added that new members “are still suffering from that backlog of not having proved themselves as individuals,” and “if you look at the chairs of the new committees, they’ve got incredible track records, which many of the ‘new’ country MEPs don’t have”.
France loses out among the ‘big country’ club
Meanwhile, Cruikshanks and Patten indicated that among the traditional ‘big’ powers, France at first glance appears to be the big loser for this parliamentary term, having less committee chairs than in the preceding five-year term.
Russell Patten argued that on the face of it, “Germany, Italy and the UK have done particularly well,” while France’s share is “rather disappointing”.
Analysing why this may be the case, he pinpointed that “there has always been the question of how engaged France’s MEPs actually are,” arguing that for the past 10 or 15 years, French MEPs “haven’t been as keen as other big countries to get involved in the key debates”.
However, he added that all horsetrading is not complete, as the key positions of rapporteurs and co-ordinators have yet to be divided up.
“You must ask the question: how powerful is a committee chair? Who’s got the real power? It’s probably the rapporteurs on the dossiers and the coordinators, so it might be useful to see how many French rapporteurs there are,” Patten questioned.
“Down the road, you may find that the French do a bit better,” he concluded, though H&K’s Cruikshanks disagreed, arguing that French MEPs “relative lack of participation” in terms of rapporteurships could count against them, because people want MEPs in positions of influence who will be engaged and “participative”.
EURACTIV France earlier this week reported that the Parliament’s agriculture committee, which is important to French strategic interests, will not be headed by a French MEP following battles between different French groups. The AGRI committee will instead be headed by Italian Socialist MEP Paolo de Castro.