Pole takes EU Parliament chair in ‘historic’ move

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Former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek was elected European Parliament president today (14 July), becoming the first politician from a former communist country to lead an EU institution. EURACTIV Poland contributed to this report.

Buzek was elected in the first round of voting with a comfortable majority of 555 votes against the 89 cast for Swedish MEP Eva-Britt Svensson of the GUE/NGL group.

His election in Strasbourg was described as “historic” by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, as Buzek becomes the first politician to represent one of the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe.

Others described the election as a “symbolic breakthrough” and a “proud moment for Poland”.

Speaking to the new Parliament, Buzek said his election sent a “strong signal” to countries that joined the EU in 2004, describing it as a “homage to the millions of citizens who made the Iron Curtain fall down”.

For the next five years, he added, there will be “no more ‘us’ [Central Europe] and ‘you’ [Western Europe], but one Europe”.

The new president and former prime minister is seen as a man who values compromise and discussion, reports EURACTIV Poland. He was indeed supported by both the ruling liberal Civic Platform party and Polish President Lech Kaczy?ski, who hails from the conservative Law and Justice party, currently the country’s strongest opposition force.

Buzek will take the Parliament’s top chair for two-and-a-half years, followed by “a member appointed by the [Socialist] S&D group for the second half of the legislature,” according to a joint statement by the leaders of the Parliament’s three largest political groups – the centre-right EPP, the Socialists and the Liberals.

Critics say Poland should have aimed higher

On the whole, the news was warmly received by the Polish political establishment in Warsaw and Brussels, with a few notable reservations.

One Polish official in the European Parliament told EURACTIV that a majority of Poles would celebrate Buzek’s appointment as a reflection of the country’s growing influence in the EU.

But others might be disappointed, the official warned. “Some in Poland are wondering why we fought for the European Parliament presidency – a representative and symbolic position – when it would have been better to fight for a key post in the Commission, for example.”

A majority of political analysts in Poland feel that Jacek Saryusz-Wolski would have been a better choice, a position repeated to EURACTIV by various voices in the corridors of the Parliament, who argue that the latter is “a better speaker, better known and a real heavyweight”.

However, the Polish source added that the symbolic power of Buzek’s election will not have been lost on the Warsaw establishment, who understand that “representative positions can sometimes be better than powerful ones”.

“Everywhere he went, Hans Gert-Pöttering was welcomed as the German president of the EP. Now it will be the Polish president of the EP, and EU citizens will be more interested in Poland and new member states,” she added.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk expressed concern that “some in Poland think that Buzek’s candidacy will discredit Polish chances of getting a key position in the new European Commission”.

On the contrary, Tusk claimed, Buzek’s election as president would “reinforce Poland’s position” and strengthen the government’s hand when negotiating with other EU leaders for the new Commission ‘top jobs’.

New vice-presidents complete the picture

This afternoon and tomorrow it will be the turn of the Parliament’s 14 new vice-presidents to be elected. Based on June’s election results, the new legislature is expected to feature the following division of VP jobs, the names of which have been obtained by EURACTIV in Strasbourg:

  • European People’s Party (EPP), five VPs: Roberta Angelilli (Italy), Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaroupoulou (Greece), Pal Schmitt (Hungary), Alejo Vidal-Quadras (Spain), Rainer Wieland (Germany).
  • Alliance of Socialists (SD), five VPs: Dagmar Roth-Behrendt (Germany), Miguel Angel Martinez Martinez (Spain), Giovanni Pittella (Italy), Stavros Lambrinidis (Greece), Libor Roucek (Czech Republic).
  • Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), two VPs: Silvana Koch Mehrin (Germany), Diana Wallis (UK).
  • European Greens, one VP: Isabelle Durant (Belgium).
  • European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), one VP: Michal Kaminski (Poland).
  • In an intriguing development, EURACTIV has learned that British Conservative MEP Edward MacMillan-Scott of the ECR group has succeeded in collecting the required 40 MEP signatures to present himself as an independent VP candidate. As a result, there are 15 candidates for 14 VP positions, with final votes expected tomorrow (15 July).

Positions

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told President Buzek: "You are the ideal candidate to take on the presidency of the European Parliament. Your historic election today is a resounding victory for a united Europe."

He argued that Buzek is "ideally placed to take up where [outgoing Parliament president] Poettering has left off," and that "given the complicated challenges facing us, we need to work together to serve the European project - co-operation between our two institutions is the driving force for Europe".

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said that Buzek's election to such a "prestigious and very important function" only "five years after Poland joining the EU" was a proud moment for the country.

The leaders of the European Parliament's three largest groups, Joseph Daul of the (European People's Party, centre-right), Martin Schulz (Socialists and Democrats) and Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) released a joint statement on Buzek's election.

The three group leaders said Buzek's appointment came as evidence of their "common commitment to strong pro-European values," and will "guarantee the stability of the European Parliament as the deepest expression of European democracy and integration".

They agreed that the European Parliament will be chaired by Jerzy Buzek from the EPP group for the first half of the 2009-2014 legislature, and by a member appointed by the S&D group for the second half of the legislature.

''Fully acknowledging the challenges of the financial and economic crisis and the need to respond to the growing concerns expressed by EU citizens as regards their job security and quality of life, they have furthermore agreed to establish a temporary committee in charge of assessing the crisis, its causes and consequences, and to put forward proposals for a coordinated European strategy to tackle the crisis and prevent it repeating itself. This committee shall be chaired by a member of the ALDE group, while its rapporteur shall be a member of the S&D group."

Schulz described the "historic event" as a milestone in European history, adding that "this demonstrates a new cohesion in the EU. People will no longer talk of old and new members".

Joseph Daul echoed this point, stating that "we no longer have a Western and Eastern Europe but one Europe".

Sara Hagemann, an EU lecturer at the London School of Economics, told EURACTIV in Strasbourg that the "presidential position is important in this more fragmented European Parliament, particularly with the presence of a significant number of Eurosceptics and extremist MEPs in the new house".

She added that while "in legislative terms the role has little substance, Buzek's election is a symbolic move for the integration process we have seen developing in the last five years". 

The European United Left/Nordic Green Left group (GUE/NGL) stressed that the 89 vote total obtained by its candidate Eva-Britt Svensson is higher than the number of MEPs sitting in the European Parliament’s far-left group. « Her ten propositions for Europe have shown the possibility of implementing real changes if there is sufficient political will », the GUE/ NGL said in a press release. 

Background

The position of European Parliament president, though largely ceremonial, has grown in importance in tandem with the growing clout and prominence of the EU assembly.

Traditionally, the presidency has been divided between the Parliament's dominant centre-right and centre-left groupings, the European People's Party (EPP) and Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, formerly the Socialist Group), with each group taking the presidency for a two-and-a-half year mandate.

The 2009-2014 legislature will follow similar lines, following today's election of former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek (EPP) as parliament president, with Socialist group leader Martin Schulz taking over the reins in January 2012. 

Further Reading

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