The European Parliament: small elections between friends

Article published on May 21, 2002
community published
Article published on May 21, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Chronical of the European Parliament sessions for

As predicted the Irishman Pat Cox has been elected to succede Nicole Fontaine in the presidency of the European Parliament. Half Scottish, half Irish, this one-time newsreader is in love with Europe.

He himself interprets his election as proof that there was room at the heart of the assembly "for everyone, small parties as well as small countries" and promises to fight for the maitenance of the linguistic and cultural diversity essential to Europe. All this seems in good faith in the perspective of enlargement. Yet to be able to, as he says, prove "the European imagination", vigilance will without a doubt be necessary regarding the new Constitution which, if care is not taken, risks decreasing even further the effective power of a Parliament which still has trouble asserting its role firmly and without restraint.

Monday: so far, so good - except the Franc!

A 15 minute sitting to announce Tuesday's elections, and it's thank you and goodnight. The serious stuff starts tomorrow. But, if all was calm within the walls of the hemicycle, there was havoc at the newsagent's.

"No, monsieur, we no longer accept Francs." The customer, evidently Italian and outraged, tried in vain to expllain to the salesgirl that the bank had refused to exchange his old Francs, but faced with her obstinate refusal, was forced to retire, though not without muttering several 'disobliging' remarks on the efficiency of the French government. The salesgirl, far from relenting, turned to the other customers and repeated the phras currently popular among salespeople: "they wanted the Euro, no point complaining now". To think that everyone has forgotten that we were indeed consulted, yet it was already so long ago...

Tuesday: Facetious europarliamentarians or the defeate of arithmetic?

A certain excitement reigns around the bar and the corridors of the bunker. For the 10th time in its history, the European Parliament will choose its new President. Exit Nicole, already wandering alone, without the army of civil servants that followed her from the office to the lift, the lift to the hemicycle, the hemicycle to the lift and back to the office. This new-found solitude seems to have mostly perplexed her, and it is with a certain degree of hesitation that she decides to order a coffee at the members' bar, while dozens of eyes stare on, surprised and a little amused. Madame the President searches laboriously through her purse, searching for the right coins.

It is with the same shy manner that she descended the steps back to her seat in the hemicycle at the bell announcing the beginning of the vote.

As it must be, the most senior member takes the presidency for the vote. The first and logically the last act of scrutiny begins.

On the list, 5 candidates representing each of the parties. The centre-right group (PPE-DE) has 232 members, the Liberal party (ELDR) counts 53, then the 179 votes of the Socialist party (PSE), the 45 Greens, the 44 on the extreme-left, and of course the 40 odd eurosceptics and the 22 independents.

In order to grasp what is at stake in this vote, the agreement between the two groups of 1999 must be recalled. This agreement assured the victory of Nicole Fontaine and ended at the same time the tacit arrangement which for the last 10 years had permitted an almost perfect alternation of the presidency between the left and the right. It remained for the People's party to pass power to the small Liberal party and honour the gentlemen's agreement allowing the liberal right to steer alone for another 2 and a half years.

Which gives us 232 + 53, at 285 votes the outlook is good for Pat Cox, the Irish candidate for the Liberal party is mathematically assured of victory. However, one doubts if this vote is only about maths. Alas, in this kind of electoral game, things are often more complicated that they seem. Pat Cox should theoretically have won the 285 votes of the coalition, and attained the absolute majority in the first round. Yet he only received 254. Question: where did the 31 missing votes go? Perhaps to David Martin, the socialist candidate, who had the surprise of gaining 184 votes instead of the 179 he expected. A more likely hypothesis would be to inspect to score obtained by the protégé of the eurosceptics, the German Jens-Peter Bond who collected a total of 66 votes.

Minds were disturbed, there is a rush for the meeting rooms to negociate the alliances for the second round. The communist and green candidates withdraw leaving respectively orders to transfer votes to the socialists, and a distinct lack of instructions. Yet this is nothing but a storm in a teacup for the large numbers that did not doubt Cox's victory, who returned serenely to place their ballots in the box. But things go wrong. Not only has Pat Cox not attained the 285 votes, but his lead on David Marting is narrowing, now there is only a 51 vote difference, whilst Bond, with 76 votes, is becoming embarrassing. The latter even has the audacity to request a pause in the session in order to negociate an eventual agreement with one of the other candidates. A complete failure, as neither of the candidates would permit themselves an alliance which would fast become unmanageable and strip them of all credibility.

The third round promises to be the most heart-stopping, the worst case scenario creeps into the realm of the possible, even if it is unlikely that the defectors of the first two rounds will push their taste for risk so far as to deprive their own camp of victory. And effectively, at the final hurdle, Pat Cox collects 298 votes and amply attains the absolute majority. That's the joy of the secret ballot, and they have to have a little fun. Of course, it is possible that this hiccup in the well-oiled machinery is a kind of warning. Something along the lines of: beware, the small-fish are here and intend to make their presence felt. But, all's well that ends well, and all congratulate themselves on this demonstration of democracy. In effect, democracy is very active in the bosom of the Parliament, even if false.

Wednesday: today, initiation rites.

The session opens with the announcement of the results of the elections for the 14 vice-presidents. The consolation prize goes to the unfortunate David Martin, whom the members have promoted to first vice-president. He is moreover warmly congratulated by a new president whose wide smile gives us to understand that he had a very good night. Yet he nearly lost it several times. It must be said though that his was a baptism of fire, though the unfortunate José Maria Aznar received the brunt during his speech on the Spanish presidency's plans. Interrupted by a rather vigorous call to order by president Cox to the members who visibly had other fish to fry, he demonstrated great compassion towards the apprentice president. But, the worst was yet to come: to vote on the questors electronically. A procedure that the members appeared to have never experienced. Voices were raised, curiously the left seemed most reticent, "Surely we aren't going to prevaricate for 10 years over a system that even our grandchildren could master?" cried finally a PPE member of a respectable age. The president ruled very judiciously: there will be a vote ... on how to vote.

Welcome and good luck Mr President.