Becoming a European Parliament committee chairperson: How to ascend the ‘Iron Throne’

Brace yourselves – the European Parliament elections are coming. Though turnover will be less dramatic than the Game of Thrones cast (no spoilers or EU-version of the Red or Purple Wedding, I promise), Brussels can expect a significant number of new movers and shakers representing the different political houses and kingdoms of Europe to ascend their Institutional thrones this summer. This is especially so for the European Parliament, where hordes of wildlings, a.k.a. MEPs, will congregate following the May elections for the new Parliament’s first plenary meeting on 1 July 2014 to decide on committees, their composition and chairs.

European Parliament committees, as per its Rules of Procedure, are set up following a proposal by the Conference of Presidents (CoP) – if the CoP, which consists of the EP President, political group chairmen and a non-attached MEP, thinks Parliament needs a committee on the Seven Kingdoms, they’re the ones who decide. Expect most standing committees to return for the 2014-2019 parliamentary term.

Committee members are nominated by political groups and non-attached members, and are elected during the Parliament’s first sitting. This process is (painstakingly) repeated two and a half years thereafter during the mid-terms, so early 2017, ahead of the 2019 elections.

Each committee, however, has one chairperson who ascends the ‘throne’. From here they influence all rulemaking during their ‘reign’ – for those that aspire to ascend it or are interested in knowing how those who have did, here are three “easy” steps to becoming a Parliamentary committee chairperson:

  • Get elected

An obvious first hurdle, I know, but it’s easier said than done. For the 751 seats up for grab in the 2014 elections, there are already more than 6,400 (!) candidates – that’s a ratio of about 1:9, though this depends per country.

  • Understand d’Hondt

Not ‘The Hound’, d’Hondt. Named after a Belgian lawyer, the d’Hondt system is used (in practice – it’s not in the Rules of Procedure) for the allocation of committee chairs between political groups. Most of you likely understand the system or at least know of it – it’s widely used in Europe and the UK, including Northern Ireland (i.e. Westeros).

For those not familiar, you may want to reach into your inner Master of Coin as it helps to have some rudimentary math skills. Here’s the basic idea: a political group’s seat total is divided by 1 – this increases by 1 each time a group wins a committee chairs. As the divisor becomes bigger, the political group’s total in succeeding rounds gets smaller, allowing parties with lower initial totals to win seats. For a great example in Northern Ireland by BBC News, see below:

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/

  • Excel at horse trading

Once you’ve entered the great halls of Spinelli, the skilful manoeuvring of a Littlefinger will be useful in becoming a committee chairperson. Though chairs and vice-chairs, the bureau, are elected by their respective standing committees in separate ballots using the D’Hondt system (see above), weeks of horse trading among the political group coordinators and national delegations ahead of the first plenary are what actually decide who joins the ranks of chairperson.

To give you a concrete example, Italy, the second largest delegation in the winning centre-right European People’s Party following the 2009 elections (breakdown below), saw the Parliament’s presidency go to MEP Jerzy Buzek of Poland, but instead was given control of the highest number of committees (see chart below), followed by Germany and France – a large number of vice-chair positions were also given to Italy. This system of ‘appointment by acclimation’ should again be expected this summer.

Using the d’Hondt system, the EPP with 265 seats received the first committee chair appointment. The divisor was subsequently increased by 1, leaving the EPP with 132.5, and therefore giving the S&D with 184 second choice. The same increase to the S&D divisor following its win would reduce its point total to 92, and thus allow the EPP to choose again in the third round. This process continued until the allocation of all committee chairs as per the chart below was completed.
Source: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/

Source: http://www.sieps.se

Though nothing can be said with certainty at this stage about who will claim each committee ‘throne’ given we’ll need to await the election results, expect behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing as well as trade-offs to dominate Parliament and its new inhabitants come June.

Stephan Thalen

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