In mid-January Martin Schulz’s successor will be elected, for two and a half years, in a very specific context. The digital revolution continues to accelerate, we are living in uncertain times. Never before have Europe’s citizens had so many doubts about the European Union.
This is not the time for “business as usual”, nor for opaque deals which the European Parliament is, correctly, so quick to denounce when other institutions make them. Thus it would be somewhat ironic were MEPs, who undertake public hearings which last hours for future Commissioners, to continue to choose their own President in secret. Negotiations conducted behind closed doors favour the old school traditional candidates, at a time when the European Parliament should be bold.
On the contrary, the candidate should be selected after an open discussion, having already addressed two points: what is the role of the European Parliament? What is the best profile for its President?
The role of the Parliament
Its mission is to re-establish links with Europe’s citizens, to dispel the false but persistent impression of a blind technocracy, that means to once again create a desire for Europe. In order to counter nationalism the Parliament needs, more than ever, to be a vibrant, cross-border chamber. In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, it is not enough to have an in-depth understanding of technical files. A sense of history and confidence in the future are also needed.
The need for the separation of powers means that the right distance must be found between the institutions, focusing on cooperation rather than collusion: because the Parliament controls the Commission, contributes to producing European “laws” and votes on the budget, it needs to ensure that ethics rules are respected and that public funds are appropriately used.
2017 will see elections in multiple important Member States. This will inevitably result in the legislative work being slowed down. Why not seize the opportunity to change the working methods, by focusing more on Europe’s citizens than the “Brussels bubble”? There are examples of fruitful experiences of citizens’ agoras and participative public meetings, as there are from the meetings of the pluralist intergroup fighting against poverty which I preside; these could be expanded. It would also make a lot of sense to organise meetings with young people, notably in the digital field.
This is not the moment for grand institutional plans. What is now needed is patient work, as close as possible to the people, in order to bring the Union to life. The authorities need to listen to society, identify the good ideas and not claim to have all the answers, nor to control everything. The “contract” which binds us needs to be comprehensively reviewed, because the number of issues raised over recent years, be it the governance of the euro for example or the policies concerning refugees and migrants, has resulted in interlocutors talking past each other. The Parliament is where the general interest is democratically formed. These are not empty words: in the current confusion it is the Parliament’s responsibility to reassure citizens by ensuring serious, independent work.
The Parliament must also play its role in Brexit to defend the founding principles of the Union, notably the legal order and the integrity of the Single Market. It is important to maintain constructive links with the United Kingdom, but defending the interests of the 27 is no less legitimate.
Finally, the international role of the Parliament is increasingly essential because the world is changing. In order to remain sovereign, together, we need to scale up our public action. In some domains, for example when facing internet giants, emerging powers or authoritarian regimes, the Union is better placed to defend European interests and values. Only the Union can ensure that the European voice is heard within multilateral bodies, be they responsible for trade, climate or finance.
By awarding the Sakharov Prize, by encouraging cultural exchanges and exchanges with young people, the Parliament contributes to European international influence.
The profile of the candidate
The European Parliament needs renewal. In spite of the significant number of female MEPs, there has been no female President for the last 15 years! In total only two women have held this post since election by direct universal suffrage began in 1979. Is this not shocking? How can we motivate young women who make up the majority of graduates if the glass ceiling continues to crush women? Social justice requires equity concerning access to public positions and the valorisation of merit. There are different ways to change mind-sets; MEPs regularly vote on laws and resolutions advocating gender equality. Today is a chance to put this into practise.
The photos which have recently been placed in the corridors of the European Parliament in Brussels are telling.
Presidents of the European Parliament since 1979
This is all the more necessary because the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and the European Investment Bank are all men. The only exception is the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Social Policy, Federica Mogherini.
Of course no-one can claim to fully understand all the elements of diversity within the Union, nor speak all of its languages, but the President of the European Parliament should be able to express themselves on the television or radio in multiple Member States, and to take part in debates directly with citizens in a certain number of Member States, particularly the most populated: Germany, France and Italy. Martin Schulz, polyglot, excelled at this. We can pay tribute to him for having increased Parliament’s visibility, in a range of languages. His successor cannot do less. Personally this is what I have tried to do, for years, by speaking regularly on the radio/TV in Germany, Austria, Italy and in many Anglophone media.
Finally, the President of the Parliament must be what the British call “the Speaker of the House”: fair, above party politics and ready to give a more prominent role to rapporteurs in charge of dossiers and to parliamentary committees.
A final, more personal point. Nothing predisposed me, when I was born in Marseille, far from Brussels, to follow a European path. However, my school gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizons. An extraordinary family in Westphalia gave me a deep love of Germany. It was at the time of the Elysée Treaty when the French and Germans embraced their responsibilities together, in the interest of the common cause. It is this spirit which we need to find once more: a Franco-German dialogue without complacency nor aggression, open to others, turned towards the future. I am a member of the Senate of the German National Foundation. To be able to be the bridge between North and South, this is what the French, notably from the Mediterranean region, can especially contribute to the EU.
The construction of Europe has been the constant objective of my professional and associative work: having worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the Commission with Romano Prodi when the EU was preparing for the large enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe, and since 2009, in the European Parliament, I know the three main institutions. For four years I was the President of the European Movement France, the largest association defending the European ideal in France.
To explain the EU in a comprehensible manner I wrote L’Europe pour les Nuls (Europe for Dummies), which won the European Book Prize in 2009, and together with the former Prime Minister of Italy Mario Monti, in order to feed debate, wrote De la démocratie en Europe.
As a French person I am particularly aware of the danger that the rise of Europhobic parties represents in my country, which I love and where the European project was born. We have to counter these parties, just as we need to fight against the terrible indifference of the moderates. We, Europeans, are children spoilt by peace time. This extraordinary privilege might not last if we are not careful. Of course mistakes have been made and improvements are needed. But to destroy our beautiful shared residence, now the size of a continent, would bring nothing positive.
I am proud of what our elders have accomplished. This continent, where in the twentieth century nationalism produced the worst, can contribute to a better world. I believe that this is necessary for my three daughters and for all of Europe’s young people, irrespective of their origins.
This is why I hope to gain the support of the liberal-democrat group, and beyond that the majority of the European Parliament, to be appointed President of the European Parliament.