4th Dec 2023

Liberal leader pledges to end job-fixing in the EP

In an unusual move, the leader of the third biggest grouping in the European Parliament, the liberals, or Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe - UK Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson - has this month set out his stall for the post of presidency of the chamber.

He wants to do away with the cosy tradition of power-sharing between the Socialists and the conservatives in the house, with the aim of boosting the parliament's profile and role.

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The parliament's president is elected for a two-and-a-half-year term - or two elections to the post per parliamentary term. Since the 1980s, however, the conservative European People's Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES) have regularly had a gentleman's agreement that they would share the two terms between them.

So despite the democracy of elections to the chamber, the decision of who gets to be president is made behind closed doors. Already, just over five months away from the June parliamentary elections, the EPP-ED and PES have reportedly agreed that the president for the first term will be the EPP's Jerzy Buzek, a Polish MEP and in the second term will be Martin Schulz, a German deputy and current leader of the socialist.

Mr Watson says he wants to take this decision out of the back rooms and make it 'public', offering it up to Europe's citizens. He wants to create a debate on the role of the parliament's president and vitalise the office.

Specifically, the liberal leader wants the parliament to counter the growing power of member states in the Union and argues that this can only happen through a more dynamic, non-partisan leader of the house.

To find out precisely how this could happen given the weight of tradition and resistance from his political opponents, the EUobserver spoke to Mr Watson as he prepared to press the flesh for a post that, until now, has never known a public campaign.

EUobserver: What's wrong with the current set-up? Surely as in most parliaments, the people elect the deputies, but it is the deputies or the parties that elect the leader of the chamber.

"I think it is insufficiently democratic. I think it may have worked for a parliament that had very few powers and in which there wasn't a lot of public interest. And I don't pin the blame simply on the EPP and the Socialists - my own group in the past has engaged in deals with the EPP to gain the presidency of the house.

But I just think things have moved on. First of all we're now in a situation where the European Union has far more powers than it did before, and the European Parliament has far more powers, and thirdly, the power of the parliament relative to the European Commission and the Council of Ministers is growing.

Something has become clear over the course of the presidencies of Jacques Santer and Romano Prodi and Jose Manuel Barroso - that the commission is more and more taking on the role of something of a secretariat to the Council. It has also become clear that although the Council of Ministers has taken on a more leading role, with 27 ministers around the table, each representing national interests, they are often not able to reach agreement.

So increasingly, the parliament, which has the role of co-legislator, is the forum in which the political deals are struck. And it's in recognition of that that I think we need to be far more responsive to Europe's people and head out and conduct a pro-active debate about who should lead that parliament and what qualifications they need for the job.

Ultimately, I hope this will enliven the democratic process at the European level."

You've also said that you want to stand up more for the parliament as an institution - the only directly-elected of the three main EU bodies

"Well, during the climate package negotiations, the parliament had to swallow pretty hard in deciding whether it wanted to accept a deal that was done in the end between 27 member states. Parliament decided it could, on the basis that any deal was better than no deal and on the basis that with everybody's economy going into a recession, to have actually got a deal was pretty good.

But clearly in the future, we will have to play a more important role in that kind of decision, as we did for example in the agreement on the directive on services, or on the REACH directive on the control of hazardous chemicals."

What's been the response so far?

Actually, I should say a remarkably good one. I wrote a letter to the 785 members of the parliament on 6 January. I've had a number letters back, with people coming up to me saying, "Congratulations, It's about time we had something like this."

In the release you put out announcing your candidacy, you underscored that you are the non-partisan choice. But it is a partisan choice - just a centrist, pro-free-market one.

"I certainly don't deny that we're Liberals and that I'm very pro-European, so in that sense, I'm partisan.

What I'm saying is that if I were elected president, I would endeavour to be a bridge-builder within parliament and somebody who would work from an ideological central position in the house to bring together the various political forces to drive the European agenda forward."

Bringing the EU back to the people has been an ongoing theme in Brussels for years no, and as a concern has been given added urgency by the No vote in Ireland. How are you going to bring the parliament and Europe to the citizens, where others have failed?

"The first and main thing that needs to be done is to ensure that there is trust in the institutions, so there must be a raising of the standards of openness and transparency, and we can certainly go further than we have done when it comes to freedom of information.

Similarly, if we are going to be asking our citizens to be more environmentally responsible, then we have to lead by example. And one of the things I would like to do is set us on a path to making parliament carbon neutral over a period of, say, ten parliamentary mandates.

Also, I think we need a new contract between MEPs and their voters, with MEPs guaranteeing to deliver to the voters certain things and to behave in certain ways. The number one issue in the public campaign is a guarantee to citizens that we will spend public money wisely and make sure it is properly accounted for, because this is something that often is a huge concern in all the member states."

How many seats does ALDE hope to win in the June elections?

"Seven years ago, we were fewer than 50 members. I've had the good fortune to build the group up to more than 100 members and I hope and believe we will come back into the new parliament with at least the same level of support.

People are concerned about the economy, but the free market is only one of our themes. Of course we believe in free markets. We believe they are the best way of lifting people out of poverty. However, I wouldn't say we emphasise deregulation. In fact, at the moment, and for several years, we've been the ones warning of the need for more effective regulation, particularly of the financial markets.

And we have many other campaign themes as well than just free markets. We are also the group that has most prominently campaigned for human rights all over the world. We are the group that have campaigned for what you might call the institutions of supranational governance, such as the International Criminal Court, or reform of the United Nations, which is something that we consider crucial to better global governance.

We campaign hard on environmental issues. Indeed, I would say we are the 'effective' greens, in the sense that we recognise that you need to keep a competitive economy while looking for ways for green growth. In other words, a growth-based economy, but with growth of a different nature."

Ultimately, though, how likely is this to happen? Is it not likely, and reportedly already the case, that the EPP and the PES will decide to stick with the traditional arrangement anyway?

"It could happen once again, but if they did do that, then they are doing the voters a great disservice, because they would effectively be stifling debate and carrying on with a kind of jobs-for-the-boys culture.

And I can assure you it will be an emphasis on the boys. I don't see either of them putting forward any women candidates.

It's a kind of back-room culture that lets our politics down. And that sort of politics deserves nothing less than a collective 'raspberry' from the voters."

This article is part of a series of articles by EUobserver on the forthcoming European parliament elections.


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