Written by Clare Ferguson,
The agenda of the next parliamentary session in Strasbourg from 2-4 July 2019 will be a little different from the usual. Meeting for the first time, the 751 directly elected Members of this new, ninth Parliament (sitting from 2019 to 2024), will deal with elections of their peers to the most important offices in Parliament. The outgoing President, or a Vice-President (or alternatively, the longest-serving Member) will open this first, constituent session (under Rule 14 of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure). To allow time for the continuing delicate negotiations on nominations to key offices, no voting or debates are scheduled for Tuesday after the official opening of Parliament.
No business can take place without Parliament having a President in office, therefore electing a president is the newly elected Members’ first task, and voting should begin first thing on Wednesday morning. The political groups (or individual Members amounting to 1/20th of the whole Parliament), propose the presidential candidates. While in previous terms this process has been quite straightforward, with the two biggest groups losing their majorities and continued uncertainty on how long Members elected in the United Kingdom Members will stay in Parliament, this time political alliances are more difficult to predict. Members will elect their President for the next two and a half years by absolute majority, in a secret ballot (with repeat rounds, under Rule 16, if there is no agreement).
Once the new President takes the chair, the election of 14 Vice-Presidents follows. Their role is to chair debates when the President cannot, and each also takes responsibility for specific aspects of parliamentary business. Vice-Presidents are elected in a single ballot by an absolute majority of votes cast (two further rounds of voting are possible, under Rule 17, to fill any remaining seats). Parliament’s five Quaestors, who are responsible for administrative and financial matters directly concerning Members and their working conditions, are then elected by absolute majority in up to three ballots (under Rule 18). In practice, the aim is that the office-holders together reflect the numerical strength of the political groups, as well as respecting geographical and gender balance. The President and Vice-Presidents make up the new Bureau of the Parliament, in which the Quaestors participate in an advisory capacity.
As is the custom in other parliaments, the Conference of Presidents (of the political groups) proposes the number of Members to sit on each of Parliament’s committees, and their decision will be voted on on Wednesday (under Rule 199 and Annex V). The Conference of Presidents will then decide on the appointment of Members to the committees, to be announced during this week’s session. The committees will hold their constituent meetings next week, at which they will elect their chairs and vice-chairs. These appointments are generally the subject of an informal accord among the political groups, based on the d’Hondt method, with an eye to reflecting the plurality of Member States and fair representation of political views.
Traditionally, as can be seen from the above, it is during this session that the strength of the Parliament’s political groups is at its most evident, as they provide support for their preferred candidates. Since the May 2019 European elections, new and re-elected Members have taken part in negotiations to form these political groups (Members sit with others of similar political persuasion, rather than by nationality). This transnational party cooperation, unique to Europe and crucial in shaping European politics, dates back to the days of the European Steel and Coal Common Assembly. The groups, to a great extent, reflect previous constellations. They must comply with certain rules before informing Parliament’s Secretary-General of their composition, and may encompass Members belonging to more than one European political party. The Presidents of these political groups also make up, along with the President of Parliament, the Conference of Presidents. This body also decides whether Parliament resumes work on any unfinished business – including around 44 legislative files at an early stage, meaning that plenary had not adopted a position by the end of the eighth legislature. Such files are deemed to have lapsed at the end of the last session before elections, and the parliamentary committees will have to consider whether they want to resume work (continuity of parliamentary business is covered under Rule 240). Even when the plenary has already adopted a position in the last term, the Parliament may decide to ask the European Commission to modify or withdraw a proposal. In the background, Parliament also ensures that Members do not hold any office that is incompatible with the office of Member of the European Parliament.
Time permitting, Thursday morning should also feature interventions by the outgoing Presidents of the European Council and the Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, on the outcome of the European Council and Euro Summit meetings on 20-21 June 2019, at which leaders adopted the Strategic Agenda for 2019 to 2024, setting four priority areas for EU action. They also discussed the appointments for high-level EU positions, but were unable to agree; a further meeting on that issue commenced on 30 June, and will reconvene on 2 July. With the European Council evidently having difficulty agreeing on a candidate for the job of Commission President, it remains to be seen whether the Parliament will have a candidate to vote on at the next plenary sitting, from 15 to 18 July. When a candidate is put forward, they will need to gain the support of the absolute majority of Members of the European Parliament (half plus one). Moreover, it as yet unclear whether the candidate put forward will have emerged from the Spitzenkandidaten process, as called for by the outgoing Parliament.
As the process of appointing Parliament’s office-holders will take some time, the customary statement on the priorities of the incoming Finnish Presidency, which begins on 1 July, will only take place during the second sitting in July.