Eastern Europe big loser in Parliament horsetrading

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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.

Positions

Bulgarian Socialist MEP Ivaylo 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 and what are your qualifications, your chances significantly decrease."

Elaine Cruikshanks, CEO at Hill & Knowlton Brussels and chair of H&K Western Continental Europe, told EURACTIV that "European Parliament purists would argue that it's wrong to talk about nationalities as you have transnational political groupings," though she added that "obviously, national delegations within the big groups do dictate some changes".

She went on to talk about the importance of "personality and track record," arguing that "strength of personality is something you see counting again and again in the Parliament" given that the EU assembly is "a consensual institution and people have to be able to work across groups".

Regarding France's comparative lack of committee chairs this time around, Cruikshanks argued that French MEPs' "relative lack of participation" in terms of rapporteurships may have counted against them as horsetrading unfolded. 

"I think that does weigh," she said, because "people want MEPs in positions of influence who will be engaged and participative".

However, she concluded that "one should not overestimate the importance of these chairmanships compared to rapporteurs".

Russell Patten, chief executive of Brussels consultancy Grayling, told EURACTIV that in his opinion, "new" country MEPs still have some distance to travel on the European Parliament "learning curve" before they attain the status of more established MEPs. 

He argued that "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. I think they're still suffering from that backlog of not having proved themselves as individuals". 

He went on to note that "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". 

As regards the "big" countries, Patten believes that "on the face of it, Germany, Italy and the UK have done particularly well" and France's share is "rather disappointing". 

Assessing why this may be the case, he said "it could also be the fact that the French for the past 10 or 15 years haven't been as keen as other big countries to get involved in the key debates. There has always been the question of how engaged French MEPs actually are".

However, he added that in this debate, one must ask "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".

"Down the road, you may find that the French do a bit better," he concluded.

Background

European Parliament committee chairmanships are coveted by MEPs as one of the most high-profile and influential positions available in the 736-member assembly. 

As usual, the 2009 distribution of committee chairmanships was decided by negotiations between the political groups on the basis of a system which gives groups proportional representation according to their size (the so-called 'D'Hondt method').

The centre-right EPP group kept nine chairs, the Socialists six and the Liberals (ALDE) three, while the Green group and the ECR group have taken one chair each (EURACTIV 17/07/09). 

The chairmanship of committees with the most legislative power will be shared between the two largest groups, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and the the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in Europe (S&D), with each holding it for two-and-a-half years. 

Further Reading

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