24th Oct 2021


Sexism and the selection of the European Parliament president

  • The late Simone Veil, pictured in 2011. The European Parliament's first president, she was not a man, not conservative or socialist, and as an atheist Jew, she was also not a Christian. Without her, the diversity picture would look far more bleak (Photo: European Parliament)
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How bad is the diversity gap when it comes to current and past presidents of the European Parliament? The answer is: quite bad. And this is true for not just one, but a number of different aspects of diversity.

In a curious twist, the elected parliament's first president, Simone Veil, was in many ways the flagship for diversity, compared to those that followed.

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She was not a man, she was not conservative or socialist, and as an atheist Jew, she was also not a Christian. Without her, the diversity picture would look far more bleak.

Veil, who held the position from 1979 to 1982, was in many ways the exception, and it's now more than 40 years since she was elected, and the institution's diversity has been in decline.

The discussion about the diversity credentials of the president of the European Parliament is especially relevant now that chamber is heading for its traditional midterm re-shuffle of positions.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the conservative European People's Party (EPP) group, has declared he is "not available" for the presidential election later this year. In fact, his chances of winning were slim and he's merely bowing to reality.

He also would have been the 15th man to hold the job — and the 8th in a row.

Since the first direct election of the parliament, in 1979, only two of the 16 presidents have been women. Nicole Fontaine, a conservative (and French, like Veil), served as president from 1999 to 2002.

To be sure the parliament's record on gender is far better than the two other big EU institutions.

Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman to hold the position of president of the European Commission in its 63-year history. The three presidents of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, Donald Tusk and Charles Michel, all have been male.

But a weak showing by other EU institutions should not give European Parliament cover. After all, the Parliament is meant to be the most representative body to showcase the European project.

And of course gender is not the only issue when assessing diversity.

Another way to look at the diversity-gap among presidents of the parliament are the countries and regions they represent.

German-French axis

One-quarter of all presidents have come from just one member state, Germany, and almost two-thirds have come from just three different countries, Germany, France and Spain. Had Weber, a German, put himself forward and won the vote, he would have merely reinforced a pattern.

Just one president has been from Eastern Europe, Jerzy Buzek of Poland, who held the post from 2009 to 2012, and there has never been a president from either the Nordics or from one of the very small member states.

Then there's the political affiliation of the presidents. It is not exactly a secret in Brussels that the historically two largest groups, the EPP and the social democratic group, S&D, have tended to split the position between themselves.

Just over a third of presidents have been from the socialist family, and only two have been liberals, Veil and Pat Cox of Ireland. The rest have been conservatives – either from the EPP or from the now-defunct European Democrats, that later merged with the EPP.

Of course the diversity-gap list does not stop at gender, geography and politics.

All of the European Parliament's presidents have been white Europeans, and with the exception of the first president, Veil, they all were affiliated with versions of the Christian faith. Adding other aspects such as declared sexual orientation, age and educational and occupational background would paint a similar picture.

So, looking at the historical record, a clear picture emerges: the president of the European Parliament is an above-middle aged white man, most likely German — and with an overwhelming possibility of being either conservative or socialist. In the rare cases that the president is a woman, she will be from France, and either liberal or conservative.

Secret vote

What unfolds over the coming political season depends on political agreements and deals.

Yet the vote is secret, too, and so what MEPs choose to prioritise can also be decisive. Indeed, past presidential elections have seen diverse candidates in terms of gender, ethnicity and other aspects. They have just not been elected.

Among the current batch of 705 MEPs, there's no shortage of potential candidates who are both strong politically and who could help bridge the diversity gaps outlined above.

Among them are Sandra Kalniete (EPP); Stelios Kympouropoulos (EPP); Tanja Fajon (S&D); Kathleen van Brempt (S&D); Samira Rafaele (Renew Europe); Dita Charanzova (Renew Europe); Kira Marie Peter-Hansen (Greens); Assita Kanko (ECR); Manon Aubry (The Left); and Katerina Konecka (The Left).

Plenty more could be added, and this list omits some more obvious possibilities already discussed publicly such as the conservative Roberta Metsola, an elected member from the bloc's smallest member state, Malta.

This however mainly underlines my point: the possibilities for a more president of the European Parliament with far greater diversity credentials are there. The question is whether the parliament's various political groups will prioritise those qualities when putting forth their candidates over the coming weeks.

Author bio

Pelle Christy Geertsen is managing director of the consultancy Euraffex, a commentator on EU politics, and a long-time observer of the European Parliament.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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