September 17, 2009
Like many people in Brussels I was following yesterday the election of Jose Manuel Barroso as Commission President in the European Parliament. Specifically I was asking myself what role the Socialist Group in the EP played.
The official line of the Socialist & Democrats Group was to abstain in the vote on the Commission President. Asked on Twitter how he voted, German Social Democrat MEP Matthias Groote answered yesterday afternoon that he did not support Barroso. He did not want to clarify whether this meant that he voted no or that he abstained, saying that the vote was secret and that he respects that.
Now it is his perfect right not to disclose his personal choice in a secret ballot. I would even say that it is remarkable that an MEP takes the time to answer and explain on Twitter his reasons why and how he voted on a certain issue.
But I want to take this as a starting point to ask two questions:
- Is a secret ballot adequate for electing a European Commission President?
- What is the reasoning behind the abstention of Socialist MEPs in the Barroso vote?
The secret ballot
The vote on the Commission President is cast by a secret ballot, in accordance with the EU Treaties.
The key aim [of a secret ballot] is to ensure the voter records a sincere choice by forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery. (Wikipedia)
Now I have to admit that I have no idea of the practice of using secret ballots in the European Parliament or national parliaments. So far, I haven’t noticed any votes in the EP that were secret, with the exception of the vote on the President of the European Parliament.
One the one hand I think that the aim of the secret ballot described above holds also true for important votes in the EP. MEPs of a certain political group could be (or could fear to be) intimidated and could face some pressure to vote with their political family in case their vote would be made public.
One the other hand it is exactly the Commission and its President that many people in Europe describe as not having the required democratic legitimacy that it should have. Does it improve or hinder democracy when the directly elected MEPs cast their vote on the Commission President in a secret ballot. I don’t know enough about parliamentary principles to make up my mind. Would be interesting to hear your opinion on it.
The role of the Socialist in the Barroso vote
The official line of the Socialist MEPs was to abstain from the vote on the Commission President. Now you could say that this is the only realistic option for the S&D group as they had no own candidate and no majority in the EP to prevent Barroso remaining at the head of the European Commission.
But why not simply voting against Barroso? If the headline of the S&D Group website after the vote was “Weakest Commission President in history” then I think it would have been consequent to vote no. Such a headline suggests that the Socialists feel more in opposition than in a constructive dialogue about key policies of the Commission, something Tony Robinson, Head of Press and Communications of the S&D Group, wanted to stress in another tweet yesterday:
“People wrongly think today’s Barroso vote is the end of the affair. The big vote comes later on the new Commission and its policies.”
Now it is difficult for me to understand how it will be possible for the Socialist MEPs to influence key policies of the new Commission when they have no alliance with others to block the whole Commission. Does really anyone think that the center-left political groups in the EP will build up an alliance to reject the entire new Commission based on reservations about not being “social” enough? Yes, there was the issue of Buttiglione in 2004, but this only is an option for rather extreme cases, not “influencing policies”.
The irony in all this is: 117 MEPS abstained in the vote. 382 voted for and 219 against Barroso. As the vote was secret we don’t know how each MEP voted. All comments suggest that the abstentions come from the Socialists and that the yes votes are all from EPP, Liberal and ECR Group. But we don’t know. Maybe Barroso has convinced several Greens in their public hearing? Or there are Liberals that abstained rather than voting for Barroso. So how will Barroso know who really supported him?
There is one further interesting remark by a Poul Rasmussen, President of the Party of European Socialists. In a first reaction, according to EurActiv, he said:
“For the coherence of Europe, we insist on having the post of High Representative, or if the Lisbon treaty is ratified, the European Council president. We have several excellent candidates for these positions.”
I am very interested in knowing which candidates will be put forward (and why they wouldn’t have been suitable as Commission President).
Always interested in your comments!