European Parliament’s theatre of politics

January 13, 2010
The European Parliament in Strasbourg

The European Parliament in Strasbourg

Every five years, the European Parliament gets an opportunity to show its muscle as it quizzes candidates for the next European Commission, the powerful body that enforces EU laws.

But rather than a forensic examination of the 26 nominees – the sort of in-the-spotlight inquisition the U.S. Senate puts presidential appointees through — the European Parliament has a tendency just to go through the motions. 

The relevant committees act tough, a range of questions from across the spectrum are thrown at the candidates, the nominees sweat a bit before trotting out safe, well-rehearsed answers, and at the end of three hours everyone says what a rigorous examination it has all been.

That said, this year’s hearings have thrown up one or two candidates parliament looks inclined to reject, meaning the complete line-up put forward by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso may have to be reshuffled or changed. Rejecting a candidate makes the parliament — which is keen to show its teeth — look tough. But at the end of the day it probably reveals more about the behind-the-scenes workings of the assembly, rather than its undying commitment to parliamentary democracy.

The biggest blocs in the 736-member assembly — the European People’s Party, the Socialists, Liberals and Greens  — tend to support candidates who come from their political background. So if the Greens let it be known they plan to block a nominee favoured by the EPP, the EPP will threaten to block a Green candidate, and so on among the groups, until most of the 26 candidates are actually part of a horse-trading exercise rather than nominees for powerful political positions looking to be judged only on their skills. 

This time around it seems the EPP and the Socialists have agreed not to shoot down one another’s candidates. But that hasn’t stopped doubts emerging over the Bulgarian and Lithuanian candidates. Parliamentary committees were meeting on Wednesday to weigh up their positions on the pair, as everyone engaged in another round of trading on their interests.

In 2004, the opposition of a parliamentary committee to Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione — who had described homosexuality as a sin — led to the whole Commission having to be reshuffled. A similar situation could play out this time.

Parliamentary groups are still in the early stages of their “exchange of views”, and hearings go on until Jan. 19. But the European Parliament is already showing its consummate skills at political theatre, and how major decisions in the European Union very often get hammered out.

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