Brussels Blogger

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!

Note: comments are now back. Sorry for the delay, which was caused by a technical problem on Blogactiv.

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  1. Just to answer your question: Secret voting is the standard when it comes to the election of persons, in particular when it comes to political positions.

    And I think that this is absolutely correct, since the human relationship dimension is much more important when it comes to election of person than when you “just” vote on some content.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. After the spectacular failure of the Party of European Socialists to put forward a candidate for the Commission Presidency ahead of the European Parliament elections, it is high time for them to parade their excellent candidates for the other top spots, and to select the ones they are going to suggest to the European Council.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. Dear Stefan, in every Parliament (all national Parliaments in the EU and many regional Parliaments in EU states) the ballot for President is secret. And if you do some research on it, there are some very good reasons for that. So this is a democratic procedure that the EU actually respects.

    And let me turn your questions arround: What difference would it have made if the Socialists vote no? None! The important thing is the yes votes. Barroso got more than 50% of them and nothing would have changed if there is a swift between abstentions and no-votes.

    Abstaining instead of voting “no” can make perfect sense: You are signaling that you are not happy with the actual program and that the candidate has not gained your support so far. But if he is willing to take demands on board and make compromises in his program he might earn this support. It is a way of influencing policies.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. Well, I just wanted to say that this vote was just as bogus as the fool’s gold… With Barroso as THE ONE AND ONLY candidate there was not really an alternative, was there? Not very democratic a choice, er?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. To all: sorry that the comments appar only now. This was due to a technical problem on Blogactiv.

    Julien, Nils: thanks for the clarification on the secret vote procedure.

    Nils, on the question of abstention vs no: I just don’t see what it will help in future negotiations. As I wrote in my article: will the Socialist MEPs vote against the Commission college when they think the views of the Commissioners are not “social” enough? And as the no’s/abstentions are anyway in the minority why should Barroso care a lot? (He will say he does, but why should he? What does he have to fear?)

    And I also don’t agree that a no would not have changed a lot. The S&D could not have been sure in advance that there is still a majority of yes votes.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

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