New president heralds a more political Parliament

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Martin Schulz, a German MEP and former Socialists and Democrats leader, was elected president of the European Parliament yesterday (January 17) in Strasbourg, promising a more assertive and controversial Parliament in the face of MEPs’ marginalisation in the eurozone crisis. EURACTIV France reports from Strasbourg.

Schulz received 387 of 670 votes, a thin majority in the 754-member Parliament. His two opponents, British MEPs Diana Wallis (Liberals and Democrats) and Nirj Deva (European Conservatives and Reformists) received 141 and 142 votes respectively.

It seems some members of the two biggest groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats, did not respect the compromise deal agreed in 2009 to elect Schulz at the Parliament’s mid-term (see Background).

The ‘technical agreement’, which has been notably denounced by the French socialist delegation to the Parliament, reduces the likelihood of the two groups from breaking with consensus.

Not wanting to ruffle the feathers of other institutions, previous presidents such as the outgoing Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland) and Josep Borrell (S&D, Spain) had largely steered clear of controversy. As result, their political positions have been “soothing, without any interest”, says Florent Saint-Martin, an associate professor at the French Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po) and co-author of a book on the European Parliament.

Facing up to the member states

In his acceptance speech, Schulz condemned in particular the Parliament’s marginalisation in finding solutions to the eurozone crisis, saying “the representatives of the peoples of Europe have essentially been reduced to the role of rubber-stamping agreements reached among governments in back rooms in Brussels.”

“Our shared aim must be to exercise to the full the powers which have been conferred on us – even if the result is a political dispute,” he added.

Leaders of the Parliament’s smaller groups expressed hope that Schulz would not be as consensual a president as his predecessors.

“I hope you will remain as inconvenient and as hard-hitting as you were as a simple MEP,” said Rebecca Harms, co-leader of the Greens. 

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal Group, favoured a president with opinion.   "It is not possible to stay neutral in the face of the attack on the community method of the Council,” he said.

Eyeing the Commission?

It may be difficult to turn the Parliament into a more assertive body at a time when member states have largely sidelined MEPs in the management of the eurozone crisis.

Schulz himself, an MEP since 1994 and previously leader of Socialist group since 2004, became significantly less outspoken following the 2009 deal for the presidency.

Some believe he holds hopes to join the European Commission in 2014, an ambition that would give him little incentive to assert himself politically.

French MEP and leader of the EPP Group Joseph Daul congratulated Schulz and underlined that even though they stand on different political beliefs, they will fully support him during his task as “in this difficult situation that Europe is going through, what brings us together is more important than what divides us”.

"You must, in our eyes, have three priorities: defending the community method, advocating the community method and safeguarding the community method", said Daul, for whom "nothing is more important than to come out on top of the crisis by means of reinforced European integration."

The president of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Sergei Stanishev, welcomed Schulz’s election and stressed the significant timing that he is called to serve under his new position .

“Martin has been elected president of the European Parliament at a crucial time”, said Stanishev. “He is committed to ensuring that the European Parliament takes even greater steps to be the voice of Europe’s people in the EU institutions. At this time, the European Union is being assailed by economic hardship, by often arbitrary credit rating decisions, and by increasingly non-democratic sentiment."

British conservative MEP Nirj Deva - and one of the three candidates for the Parliament presidency - congratulated Schulz and reaffirmed his intention to work closely with him and another unsuccessful candidate, Diana Wallis, throughout the new leaders's mandate.

“I will happily offer my services if I can. The president should feel free to take ideas from my platform, particularly the parts related to improving transparency of decision-making and giving parliament the right to choose where it sits,” he said.

Martin Callanan, British MEP and leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, congratulated Schulz but also criticised his election as a decision behind closed doors. "You told Der Spiegel magazine just last week that: ‘The people are tired of decisions being made behind closed doors.’ I agree with that statement but it is not without a certain irony given the manner of your election.”

UKIP MEP and former EU Chief Accountant Marta Andreasen said: "The election of Mr Schultz is a divisive one. He has, in the past, shown his intolerance and barely concealed derision for any other position apart for his federalist one.”

"While his intemperate outbursts may embolden the eurosceptic cause in the coming years, the flip side is that his brand of European politics will further marginalise the European Parliament to the sidelines of current political thought."

Following the European elections of June 2009, the European Parliament’s largest groups, the centre-right European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats, made a deal to split the legislature’s presidency between them.

In particular, it was agreed that former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek serve in the first half of the five-year legislative term and be succeeded by Socialist leader Martin Schulz. The presidency is traditionally a largely ceremonial role.

Similar deals have allowed the EPP and the Socialists, neither of which have an absolute majority of seats, to keep the presidency between themselves almost continuously since 1989.

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