Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis caused an outcry when she resigned yesterday after coming third in the European Parliament (EP) presidential election. Of particular concern is the fact that under the current rules, her husband Stewart Arnold will almost certainly take over her seat in Yorkshire and the Humber, as he came second in the electoral list during the 1999 elections. This is surely not going to help offset the charges of nepotism which are often levelled at MEPs, a fact which fellow Lib Dem member Chris Davies pulled no punches in pointing out.
Yet underneath this somewhat superficial concern, which seems more of an unfortunate coincidence than anything else, there lies a deeper and far more worrying story of political corruption. Diana Wallis’ decision to run as a candidate for the election surprised many observers not because they thought she was unlikely to win, but rather because they knew she wouldn’t. The results had already been decided two and a half years ago. For the last twenty years or so the European Parliament’s two main political groupings, the EPP and S&D, have had a mutual power-sharing agreement in which they take turns voting for each-other’s presidential candidate. That was how socialist MEP Martin Schulz was able to secure the votes of his supposed political rivals from the right-wing EPP, and in doing so win an easy victory.
It was in an attempt to unsettle this cosy arrangement that Diana Wallis and British Conservative MEP Nirj Deva decided to run for the presidency, scoring a respectable number of votes to make this the closest election in nearly two decades, with Schulz at 58% compared with his predecessor Buzek with 86%. Co-incidentally, 86% is the number of respondents of an online poll on the EP’s Debating Europe website who thought Diana should be the next president. However, the public do not get much of a say when it comes to electing the most powerful member of the EP, and so the inevitable great stitch-up between the two main groups continues.
This undemocratic pact is particularly troubling for three important reasons. Firstly, it significantly discredits any attempts by the EU to promote democracy abroad. In light of the circumstances of his own election, it seems absurdly hypocritical for the previous President Jerzy Buzek to have criticised the Russian government by saying that “democratic elections require real and free competition among political parties.” With no hint of irony, he went on to condemn Moscow over the fact that some political parties would be unable to take part in the election.
Of course, you can’t really compare the political dealings of the EP with the level of repression in the Russian Duma, and Buzek certainly was no Putin (see above). But there is no denying that the current arrangement excludes the smaller political party groupings, a second major problem with the current status quo. Being left out of the presidential contest, parties outside of the dominant duo must content themselves with running for one or more of the 14 Vice-President positions (one of which Diana had held for the last 5 years). This explains why ALDE refused to back Diana’s presidential bid and preferred instead to get behind MEP Edward McMillan-Scott for re-election as vice-president, leaving her to run on an independent ticket (the resulting fall-out with ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt may also have been a factor in her subsequent decision to resign). Overall then, the exclusion of the smaller parties is a major barrier to true representation. With enough to carry the majority each time, the combined power of the S&D and EPP allows them to take turns nominating whoever they want for president, preventing any of the smaller groups from wielding any influence even though they currently account for nearly 40% of seats.
The third issue to consider, and the one which is most important for us mere mortals, is the fact that the EP has become significantly more powerful since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. The co-decision procedure has given it equal standing with the Commission in terms of shaping legislation, and the EP President’s signature is required for the EU’s budget and laws to be enacted. As the EU’s only directly democratic institution, it plays the crucial role of providing accountability and representation to all of its citizens. This role has become ever more vital as the initial goal of creating a common market has led to increasingly political implications, on issues such as migration, unemployment and financial regulation. Increasingly then, there is a need for a substantive debate between parties so that the EU stops being perceived as a top-down elitist project and everyday Europeans are given a real voice.
This brings me back to my interview with Diana just a few months ago, when she described her initiatives to get more people involved in European policy-making and to try and make the whole process far more open. It seems ironic now that after having done so much to promote the cause of participatory democracy and transparency in the EU, Diana’s resignation has made the headlines only because of supposed charges of nepotism. I can only hope that her and Nirj Deva’s actions will help set a precedent, and that more MEPs will see the sense in having a meaningful contest for EP president. Behind the scenes bargaining and compromises may be an inevitable, and sometimes useful, part of the political process, especially when dealing with 27 different member-states. However, these sort of opaque dealings should not be used to appoint the head of the one EU institution which is supposed to ensure representative democracy.