Members' Research Service By / July 3, 2017

Simone Veil, European political pioneer

Written by Philippe Perchoc, Simone Veil, the first President of the directly elected European Parliament in 1979, and the first…

Portrait of Simone VEIL, EP President 1979-1982

Written by Philippe Perchoc,

Simone Veil, the first President of the directly elected European Parliament in 1979, and the first woman to hold the office, died on 30 June 2017, at the age of 89. A prominent French public figure beyond her years in office, she leaves an important and enduring legacy.

First President of the directly elected European Parliament

simone Veil at EP 17.07.1979
© European Communities – EP, 17 July 1979

On 17 July 1979, Simone Veil was elected President of the European Parliament by her peers. Her election was a landmark in the process of European integration as she became the first female President of the Parliament, which had for the first time been elected directly by the citizens. In her first speech as President, she declared: ‘Our Parliament must also be a motive force in European integration. This is particularly true at a time when, as I already have mentioned, Europe’s prime need is a further measure of solidarity. This new Parliament will make it possible for the views of all Community citizens to be voiced at European level, and will at the same time more effectively impress upon every sector of society the need for a solidarity transcending immediate concerns, however legitimate, which must never be allowed to mask the fundamental interests of the Community’.

Indeed, the 1979 election was a turning point in the history of the European Parliament, as the newly directly elected assembly started to discuss possible reform of the European institutions. Altiero Spinelli started the process of preparing within the Parliament, what became known as the Spinelli Plan adopted in 1984 to democratise the functioning of the European Communities. Spinelli launched a dialogue with Veil, President of the Parliament, on these issues as early as 1981.

After her presidency, Simone Veil remained an active MEP until 1993, and the Parliament later decided to give her name to the agora, located in front of the Spinelli building, at the heart of its Brussels campus.

Defender of women’s rights

Simone VEIL - EP President
Portrait of Simone VEIL, EP President 1979-1982

In France, Simone Veil is also known as a strong defender of human rights, in her capacity of judge working in the field of penitentiary policies. Known for her courage, she was nominated minister of health by the then newly elected President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who tasked her with decriminalising abortion in France in 1975. After four years as a minister, she became President of the EP, and an MEP until 1993. Briefly thereafter, she was minister of social, health and urban affairs, from 1993 to 1995. From 1998 to 2007, she continued her career as a highly respected lawyer as a member of the French Constitutional Council.

A tragic family history

During the Second World War, Simone Veil was arrested in the street in Nice, and her family was deported in 1944 to concentration camps because of their Jewish background. Simone Veil was liberated from Bobrek and returned to France in 1945, but neither of her parents nor a brother returned.

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