Ministers come and go but the business goes on as usual…
And MEPs? Sure, some, though very few, are there ever since the first direct European elections in 1979. Yet, like ministers, the majority of MEPs come and go – some staying longer, others shorter. What should we voters make out of this? What kind of representatives do we need? Fresh faces – or old foxes knowing their way through the Brussels maze?
One thing is for sure: there are bound to be plenty of new faces among the 736 MEPs to be elected during 4-7 June elections. Some 180 members of the currently 785-strong European Parliament resigned since taking their term in 2004, often to get another job in their national parliament or government. And many others are not running again. Take the case of Finland, my native country. Half of our current 14 MEPs are stepping down, some after a ten years’ turn.
While getting fresh faces and air to the house is good, without any doubt, the renewal also raises questions of continuity, of institutional, party-political and national political memory. For a small (in population terms) country like mine, the memory will be kind of halved, and the new MEPs, even if they were no political novices, will have to work hard to find their place and create their networks, if they wish to make things happen.
In principle any European with full citizens’ rights can stand for election. And to do so not only in his/her native country but also in another EU country, provided he/she has been resident there. As a voter you hardly get the chance to cross-examine your potential choice. And you should be able to trust that the parties have already done this for you, made sure that she/he is up to it, right? As a consumer of political decisions, you can expect a certain level of protection, no?
So what kind of criteria do political parties apply when looking for and choosing their candidates? Celebs to attract and gather votes? Women and men of common sense? Experts to deal with the day-to-day European agenda and legislative work? National political figures looking for a break, or even a refuge, abroad? Yes, as amazing as it sounds from my Brussels perspective, it seems that despite its extremely influential position in EU decision-making, some still consider Brussels and the European Parliament just a temporary retreat with not-that-tremendous responsibilities.
Coming back to my country: There will be only 13 Finnish MEPs after June 2009 elections. This makes it all the more important they all are both competent and skilful. As compared for example to Germany and its 99 members, there will not be enough Finns to follow all the legislative work done in the 20 standing committees.
Despite the fact that MEPs do not sit in national groupings, but in political groups of the likeminded, and the fact that it’s all about coalitions and compromises, it’s also about representing your country. Some member states are in fact very active in lobbying or “briefing” their MEPs. And the MEPs often have more say on a piece of legislation on the table than a member states’ minister.
While we may not want to turn European legislating into the hands of an oligarchy of EU experts or civil servants, we voters surely can expect a kind of minimum criteria for those to represent us?
So what is a good MEP made of?
Let’s give a word to those who should know it best, the MEPs themselves. We recently put the question to some of the current representatives, and this is what we got: good negotiating and language skills, ability to listen, build bridges, compromise, solve problems… perseverence, openness, idealism…
“Identify where Europe can be part of the solution, cut through Brussels bureaucracy and work across national and party political boundaries to get results”, as a British MEP put it. “They must have clear values and know what they want, and are not afraid to stand up for their opinion “, a Swedish member said. An Estonian colleague felt that often “it is better to have younger people as MEPs as they have good language skills and can be more flexible sometimes”.
Us, the civil servants, we stay and keep the house going. But without the MEPs there is no Parliament. This is a predominantly political house, full of sometimes converging, other times diverging dynamics, but hey, that’s exactly what makes it so fascinating.
Plenty of attributes. And on top, “energy is needed, since European decision making sometimes can be very hectic”. Rushing from one meeting and vote to another, followed and rated by the press, late nights at work, constant travelling, staying in hotels… Yep, being part of the wheels of the machine is not that bad. Us, the civil servants, we stay and keep the house going. But without the MEPs there is no Parliament. This is a predominantly political house, full of sometimes converging, other times diverging dynamics, but hey, that’s exactly what makes it so fascinating.
And in the end, there are MEPs and MEPs…There are backbenchers and frontrunners. Some hide in the shadows whereas other more ambitious ones crave for influential posts at the head of committees, where more and more decisions are actually taken, to lead the legislative work in the house.
Get ready: 4-7 June approaching
At the time of writing this post not all of 27 Member States had finalised the registration of candidates. In some countries, like mine, it ended, in some others parties or their coalitions will be able to continue registering candidates even up to mid-May. And to find out who are running? Once the registration is over and official lists of candidates become available, EP Information Offices around Europe will provide them.
In just a month’s time you, one of the 375 million Europeans to be able to vote, will have the choice, not only to pick (check out this great EU Profiler!) a good candidate, but also to point the way for Europe for the upcoming five years. Like we like to say: If you don’t vote, don’t complain.