New European Parliament shaping up for big issues ahead - By Clive Needle, EuroHealthNet's Advocacy and Policy Director

16 July 2014

Most of the dust blown around by the European parliamentary elections in June is now settling around the glass superstructures of the Brussels home of the EU institution, where all 751 newly elected Members (MEPs) have their offices. Technically its seat is in the fine Alsatian provincial city Strasbourg, where it meets in full ‘’plenary’’ sessions a dozen times each year.

That was where at the start of July it formally began its five year term of office, by electing its leading officers who will steer its most important business. Immediately there was evidence of how parliamentarians have gradually exerted proportionately more influence in the past decade, often out manoeuvring political leaders in the other two main EU institutions, the Councils of Ministers and the Commission.

When I went through the same experiences of being a newly elected Member that newcomers are now facing, the cliché was that ‘’Commission proposes, Parliament comments, Council decides’’. But already that was changing as new processes, such as ‘’co-decision’’ rights established through successive revisions of the Treaty of Rome, began to be implemented. That applied to public health, where new roles (‘’competences’’) were established for the EC, which eventually became the various iterations within health programmes and legislative measures on which EuroHealthNet actively works today.Parliamentarians from most political perspectives played leading roles in those developments, so it is timely to look at how the institution is shaping for the next few years.

Over the past month since the election results were declared, there has been frantic activity in Brussels, which is where most of the detailed work is done. 

The current Treaty on European Union requires Member State Governments to ‘’take into account’’ the outcomes of the parliamentary elections. Although most MEPS work closely with their national and regional political parties, they coalesce in broad political groups: currently there are seven.  The remainder sit independently as ‘’non-attached’’ members, but receive less practical support.

Most of those groups proposed leading candidates ‘’Spitzenkandidaten’’ on the basis that the next President of the European Commission should also reflect the election results. Thus, when the European Peoples Party (EPP) continued with the highest number of parliamentary seats, its candidate Jean Claude Juncker received not only its backing but also that of the majority of MEPs. Despite much debate and a formal vote for the first time, at the resulting vote in the European Council of heads of states and governments, Mr Juncker was put forward by 26 votes to 2.

His imminent formal ratification by MEPs means the new body of Commissioners, appointed by each state but acting collectively in a ‘’College’’, can be allocated portfolios. We shall examine those new appointments during the summer and autumn as they take office from 1 October. But before that they each have to face quite challenging ordeals of hearings by the relevant parliamentary committees for their portfolio, and be expected to grasp their complex new briefs within a few short weeks or face at least embarrassment and at worst rejection and replacement, which happens rarely but is certainly possible. Hence officials across the EC directorates have for some time not only been dealing with existing business, but also helping outgoing Commissioners complete their work and prepare briefings for their successors. As with any change of administration it is a fraught and uncertain time.

So to play its part, Parliament has been choosing and electing its own leaders. Depending on your own views, one may either smile wryly or frown with concern at how it does that, partly through a proportional system ensuring most groups are represented, but partly through internal political deals which are far less transparent. As the Christian Democrat EPP saw Mr Juncker lead the Commission, it supported the nominee of the next largest group, the Social Democrat (S&D) Martin Schulz, to be Parliament President for the first half of the term. Mr Schulz, who was most helpful to EuroHealthNet and the European Public Health Conference in preparing its parliamentary reception in November 2013, thus became the first President to be re-elected since open elections from 1979. Eleven Vice Presidents were also elected to form the ‘’Bureau’’ which, with five elected ‘’Quaestors’’ who oversee the operational direction of the institution, will preside over plenary sessions and set agendas. They thus represent senior sources of parliamentary power.

The leaders of the political groups are also important figures in decision making. Full groups meet monthly, but each has professional operations covering all aspects of EU political life plus strong liaison with national parties. They too have changed significantly this summer, including Manfred Weber from Germany taking over the helm of the EPP, former Italian medical doctor Gianni Pitella just elected as the new leader of the S&D – and thus hopefully a prominent voice for health – and Syed Kamall becoming the British leader of the European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) group. All group leaders will be vocal on the major issues and play vital tactical roles.

The other key posts which have just been decided are the leaders of the 22 committees which really form the backbone of the legislative work for MEPs if they do their job fully. That of course is a contentious issue for the much greater number elected on mandates to oppose the working of the EU in various ways. We may well see a very different parliament politically this term, which we shall examine in future posts here. The usual process now is that new or renewable legislation and regulation is put forward by the Commission to both the Parliament and Council for their eventual joint decision. In Parliament, that means allocation for responsibility for scrutiny to at least one main committee, often with subsidiary opinions by other relevant committees. Therefore establishing the process, timetable, and methods of scrutiny offer important opportunities for detailed consideration of texts, before reports and opinions are sent to the whole parliament in plenary sessions for political decisions and negotiations with states and Commission.

Thus the chairs of committees, and sometimes their vice chairs, are hugely influential figures with powers to call and question officials and experts. Often I have seen mighty officials tremble before the spotlight and scrutiny, and occasionally quail before the rage or outrages, of parliamentary committee chairs. So those appointments are allocated proportionately to groups based on their voting strengths, but then highly competitively fought for within political circles.

The chosen chairs have been announced for the first half of the parliamentary term to the end of 2016, and contain several interesting new faces.

EuroHealthNet does not have a lobbying role, although an objective is to bring evidence based information for health promotion and social equity into the EU policy process. Part of the hectic activity going on among the thousands of companies and organisations who do lobby in Brussels has been to firstly identify just who are all the new MEPs now taking those seats, as over half are new, and then to work out who now holds positions of power and consider how to inform, engage or influence them in their decisions ahead. We will work together with stakeholders and partners, such as WHO Europe who have already helpfully convened meetings for public health organisations to look at ways of working together, to plan which legislative processes lay ahead that we should inform. The first part of any successful advocacy operation is to gather accurate information – so that is our current task. In future posts here we shall examine:

  • The people who will be most influential for health and equity in parliament;
  • The programmes of work in the year ahead;
  • The policy proposals which matter.

We also welcome submission for consideration of articles and blogs about parliamentarians from our partners and stakeholders, perhaps which will inform us how:

  • National or regional parliaments operate on health, social and research issues;
  • MEPs deal with health in their own countries and regions or outside Brussels.

If you have any suggestions for future blog topics do let me know at c.needle@eurohealthnet.eu