Martin Schulz made waves – in the Brussels bubble at least – when he announced he would not be seeking a third term as European Parliament President. It’s true that according to the so-called ‘grand coalition’ struck between the EPP and S&D groups, the presidency should, come January, fall into EPP hands. This, however, has angered a number of MEPs, who have spoken out against the “backroom deals” reached to make important decisions, including who should be Parliament President.
While Parliament’s two largest groups have yet to put forward their official candidates, some unexpected faces have already thrown their hat into the race – a few weeks ago, it was the ECR group’s Helga Stevens and now, the ALDE group’s Sylvie Goulard.
Asked why she believes she is best suited to the post, Goulard insists she is “modest” but that “there needs to be a debate and we must ask ourselves what profile the best candidate for the job should have.”
She believes that just like in a company, there should be an outline of what kind of candidate is needed for the post – “a negotiator, or someone who is good at languages, and then look for someone who fits that profile. In Parliament, we skip this stage and just say we want this or that person, which doesn’t seem very professional to me.”
A central point of the French deputy’s campaign is that since Parliament’s first direct elections in 1979, only two of its 28 President have been women, most recently 15 years ago. “In 2016,” says Goulard, “parity and rotation – not domination – is a good thing. Hiring different types of people adds value to a team. A female President would help bring in new people.”
Currently, none of the EU institutions’ Presidents are women. Why? “Because we are locked into a co-option system. There should be a job description for the role of President, we should know what type of candidate we want and what we want them to achieve.”
She adds, “I strongly believe the institutions need to reconnect with the citizens, which Schulz started to do, by communicating with people through the media and in different languages. This is something we must carry on – changing people’s perceptions takes years – and as such we need people in place who have certain competences, who know the major EU member states well and who can communicate in different languages.”
Goulard, an MEP since 2009, previously as served as an adviser to European Commission President Romano Prodi, worked on European issue for France’s foreign affairs ministry, and is fluent in English, German and Italian.
At a time when Eurosceptic and populist parties are gaining ground across western countries, the EU – and, arguably, conventional politics in general – is often seen as struggling to regain people’s trust. Goulard acknowledges that these are peculiar times we live in. “If someone had said, two or three years ago, that the UK would leave the EU, Trump would be US President and Turkish President Erdoğan would be arresting people with no trial, people would have thought they were being dramatic. This is a very serious situation.”
However, she doesn’t believe people should be “vilified” for supporting increasingly tough, nationalist policies. “People are lost,” she says. “Take someone my age, in their 50s. The world I grew up in was completely different from today. There was a cold war and USSR domination. Today, the USSR no longer exists, although we still have Russia, and Europe is a unified candidate. But back then, there was no Islamism and the technologies we use daily didn’t exist.
“Some people weren’t lucky enough to have the tools to adapt to this new world, to learn the new skills that are needed, so they’re scared and they retreat to what is familiar to them: their country, city or region.”
It’s important that politicians reach out to these people, says Goulard, “and try to figure out how to explain to them that what they are doing is not in their interest, that instead they should try and remain confident and adapt to a changing world,” something she feels she would be well placed to do as Parliament President.
She says she learned a lot through her work leading Parliament’s intergroup fighting against poverty in defence of human rights. “The problem, I learned, is that these people are not respected, they feel like they are being thrown out of the system. But if you respect them and listen to them, you will realise that even those who struggle the most, those who are homeless, have lived through various experiences. So it’s not that people don’t like Europe. Yes, mistakes were made at European level, but the same can be said at national level, it’s just that national level is more familiar.”
For Goulard, “it’s important to look at history, to take a long-term perspective. We can’t just focus on technical dossiers – although they’re important too. We need to find a new social contract and the right balance between solidarity and freedom.”