Opinion: MEP Diana Wallis resigns – but the European Parliament’s great ‘stitch-up’ continues

Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis caused an outcry when she resigned yesterday after coming third in the European Parliament (EP) presidential election, especially as her husband Stewart Arnold is likely to take over her seat. Yet underneath this public relations nightmare, 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.

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.” 

Of course, you can’t really compare the political dealings of the EP with the level of repression in the Russia. But there is no denying that the current arrangement excludes the smaller political party groupings, a second major problem with the current status quo. With just enough to carry the majority each time (62%), the combined power of the S&D and EPP allows them to prevent smaller groups from wielding any influence over who becomes president. Being left out of the presidential contest, parties outside of the dominant duo must then content themselves with running for one or more of the 14 Vice-President positions.

The third issue to consider, and the one which is most important for voters, 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 shaping legislation, with the EP President’s signature now required for the EU’s budget and laws to be enacted. As the EU’s only directly democratic institution, the parliament 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 topics such as migration, unemployment and financial regulation. Increasingly then, there is a need for a substantive debate between parties over these politically divisive issues.

This brings me back to my interview with Diana just a few months ago, when she described her initiatives to make European policy-making 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 by challenging the status quo, her 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.

* Paul Haydon has recently completed an MSc in European Public Policy at University College London.

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13 Comments

  • Richard Swales 21st Jan '12 - 2:17pm

    Ron is absolutely right. We could equally say that the Tories and Lib Dems are stitching up the UK parliament by agreeing things in advance, and excluding the dozen smaller parties in our parliament. That is how coalitions work.

  • Steve Comer 22nd Jan '12 - 2:47am

    Its easy to say the current arrangement ‘excludes the smaller parties’, but that has now always been the case.
    10 years ago Pat Cox, and Irish MEP in the Liberal Group was elected as President of the Parliament. Diana Wallis’s rogue candidature was criticised by ALDE Leader Guy Verhsoftadt on the grounds that it might mean Liberals failed to get supported for other posts.
    Anyway, Diana resigning as an MEP immediately after having failed to be elected president just looks like someone throwing their toys out of the pram!

  • Richard Hill 22nd Jan '12 - 12:14pm

    It all looks like a good argument for ditching the EU in its present form. There can not be a more expensive way of creating laws and unity. It has become a bureaucratic steamroller with very little regard the voter and how much it spends.

  • John Russell 22nd Jan '12 - 5:02pm

    Just to put the record straight, you say “The co-decision procedure has given it equal standing with the Commission in terms shaping legislation…….”. In fact, the co-decision procedure gives the European Parliament equal standing with the Council of Minsters. The Commission proposes draft legislation, but the MEP’s in the Parliament and Ministers in the Council can each make amendments and jointly have the final say.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Jan '12 - 5:08pm

    If you want data about MEP voting patterns, by group, nationality and party, go to votewatch.eu. I think they give the lie to Stephen W’s claim that the two large groups are ideological bedfellows who always vote together in opposition to all the other groups. To find out how often one party group votes with another, go to the site and click on Coalition Trends → EPG Vote Match.
    So, for example, the centre-right EPP group votes with the other groups in the following order (for all policy areas):

    ALDE > S&D > ECR> > EFD > Greens/EFA > GUE-NGL
    For the centre-left S&D group, the matching is:
    ALDE > Greens/EFA > EPP > GUE-NGL > EFD > ECR
    For ALDE, it is:
    EPP > S&D > Greens/EFA > ECR > EFD > GUE-NGL

    So the both of the two main groups are more likely to vote with ALDE than with each other. Also the matches between pairs of any of the three largest groups is over 70%. So if there is any sort of ‘grand voting block’, then ALDE is part of it. Yet, even the vote match between S&D and ECR, two groups that one would not expect to agree on very much (and respectively containing UK Labour and Conservative MEPs), is 45%. This suggests that a lot of the stuff that MEPs vote on is actually pretty uncontroversial, and in this respect it is not much different from any other legislature.

    There are differences in detail. For all policy areas, ALDE matching with EPP and S&D is almost the same, at around 80%,. But in Economic & Monetary affairs, ALDE has voted with EPP >90% of the time, and S&D is 3rd, a long way behind the Greens. While on Civil Liberties, EPP is 3rd, behind S&D and Greens, in terms of vote matching with ALDE. And on Gender Equality, ALDE has voted with the far-left GUE-NGL group more often than with EPP.

    On Constitutional & inter-institutional Affairs (which seems to be a reasonable yardstick for support for European integration), ALDE has voted alongside the two largest groups 89% of the time, far above the 3rd-placed group (Greens/EFA, at 65%). So I think it’s fair to say that three largest groups (EPP, S&D, ALDE) generally support support a closely integrated, federal European Union, but they have very different views on how this federal EU should look. That is, S&D supports a social-democratic EU, while EPP and ALDE are more pro-market; however, ALDE tends to vote with S&D on social and civil liberties issues. So this is again pretty similar to how party groups normally coalesce and divide in legislatures in the democratic world.

    On votewatch there is also a page where you can pick any two groups and see how often they vote together against each of the other groups. You will find that this doesn’t often happen where EPP and S&D are concerned, and where it does it’s mostly against the far left and right groups. They have voted together against ALDE 5.75% of the time.

    In summary, there IS a healthy ideological divide between the main groups in the European Parliament. If anything the ideological division between the groups is clearer than in most EU national parliaments, because of the separation of powers principle under which the EU institutions operate, which means that the waters of ideological voting patterns are not muddied by questions of membership of government coalitions.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Jan '12 - 8:55pm

    The main reason the European Parliament may be “consensual” is the separation of powers, combined with the large number of party groups and the non-partisan workings of the Commission and Council. So there is no “government” and “opposition” in the European Parliament, resulting in much less ‘oppositionism’ (opposing things for the sake of it) than in national legislatures where the government is formed from one or more of the parties there. I think this is a good thing, as it means that MEPs vote more for what they believe in, rather than being constrained by loyalty for or against a “government” or “opposition”. Lib Dem MPs often have to hold their noses and vote for stuff they don’t like in order to keep the Coalition going, but MEPs, unbound by Coalition politics, do not have this problem.

  • Having an open, visible contest for the Parliament Presidency will encourage more debate and help people see where the different parties stand on issues which are important to them.

    This I agree with.

  • Robert Fitzhenry 23rd Jan '12 - 8:17am

    “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.”

    In fact the Liberals had an agreement with the EPP Group 10 years ago and therefore the EPP voted the Liberal candidate into the Presidency of the European Parliament in 2002.

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