Members and staff of the European Parliament breathed a collective sigh of relief to see Martin Schulz finally booted out of the assembly’s presidency. Under his successor, Antonio Tajani, they expect to breathe the air of freedom.
A new era began at the European Parliament this week with the election of EPP candidate, Italian Antonio Tajani, after an oppressive five years with German socialist Martin Schulz at the helm. The boorish Schulz spent his five years as EP President aggregating more and more powers to himself, at the expense of backbench Members, parliamentary committees and the institution’s administration.
President Tajani indicated clearly in his candidate speech that he intended to revert to the classic “Speaker” role as foreseen in the Parliament’s own Rules of Procedure, avoiding the centralising and controlling tendencies of Martin Schulz. European news site Politico today writes that the likely effect of Mr Tajani’s approach will be a much more diffuse power structure within the European Parliament, which many observers deem to be a healthy development after the excesses of the Schulz years.
Among the beneficiaries of Tajani’s self-restraint, Politico identifies the 22 Standing Committees of Parliament, which deal with the nitty-gritty of EU policy, managing the detail of the Commission’s legislative proposals. When Schulz was president, he was constantly interfering in committee prerogatives, exerting political pressure on MEPs to speed up, slow down or block their proceedings, according to whatever he had agreed with his “partner in crime”, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The Schulz/Juncker power duo effectively emasculated the Parliament in carrying out its classic role of scrutinising the executive Commission and holding it to account.
Normal backbench MEPs also stand to gain significantly in the freedom to exercise their mandate while Antonio Tajani is President. Under Schulz, there had been a constant revising of the Rules of Procedure, agreed by the “grand coalition” of the largest EPP and S&D Groups, which systematically sought to limit the tools available to individual Members to defend their constituents’ interests. The most egregious example of this was the imposition of monthly quotas per MEP for Parliamentary Questions, a mechanism for extracting information and explanations from the Commission.
Similarly, smaller political groups had been systematically squeezed out of the decision-making process, while the EPP-S&D-ALDE trio cooked up political deals over their regular leaders’ dinners in Strasbourg, which they then had rammed through the EP governing bodies. This was how Guy Verhofstadt got himself designated as Parliament’s “Brexit Coordinator” for example, a role he has exploited to the maximum as an irresponsible self-promotion exercise, regardless of the impact on EU-UK future relations.
Schulz also notoriously filled the EP administration with his own unqualified socialist cronies, to head up personnel, finance and other key divisions so as to politicise the EP civil service and suborn it for his political activities, such as his witch hunt on MEPs from the so-called “anti-EU forces”, while turning a blind eye to misuse of public funds by MEPs from his own party, not to mention himself.
With the Schulz era over, there is much optimism at the European Parliament about the potential for President Tajani to restore some democratic normality to the institution. We will have to see whether this proves to be the case.