Sexism and the election of the President of the European Parliament

How serious is the diversity gap when it comes to current and past presidents of the European Parliament? The answer is: pretty bad. And this is true not just for one, but for several different aspects of diversity.

In a curious twist, the first female speaker of parliament-elect, Simone Veil, was in many ways the flagship of diversity, compared to those that followed.

She was not a man, she was not a conservative or a socialist, and as an atheistic Jew, she was not a Christian either. Without it, the landscape of diversity would look much bleaker.

Veil, who served from 1979 to 1982, was in many ways the exception, and now more than 40 years have passed since she was elected, and the diversity of the institution has diminished.

The discussion about the diversity credentials of the President of the European Parliament is especially relevant now that the chamber is heading for its traditional midterm reorganization of positions.

Manfred Weber, leader of the conservative group European People’s Party (EPP), has declared that he is “not available” for the presidential elections this year. In fact, his chances of winning were slim and he just bows to reality.

He would also have been the fifteenth man to hold the position, and the eighth in a row.

Since the first direct election to parliament in 1979, only two of the 16 presidents have been women. Nicole Fontaine, a conservative (and French, like Veil), served as president from 1999 to 2002.

Without a doubt, parliament’s record on gender is much better than that of the other two major EU institutions.

Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman to hold the position of President of the European Commission in its 63-year history. The three presidents of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, Donald Tusk and Charles Michel, have all been men.

But poor performance by other EU institutions should not cover the European Parliament. After all, Parliament is destined to be the most representative body to showcase the European project.

And, of course, gender is not the only problem when assessing diversity.

Another way of looking at the diversity gap between speakers of parliament is the countries and regions they represent.

Franco-German axis

A quarter of all presidents come from a single member state, Germany, and nearly two-thirds come from just three different countries, Germany, France, and Spain. If Weber, a German, had come forward and won the vote, he would have simply reinforced a pattern.

Only one president has been from Eastern Europe, Jerzy Buzek from Poland, who served from 2009 to 2012, and there has never been a president from the Nordic countries or one of the very small member states.

Then there is the political affiliation of the presidents. It is not exactly a secret in Brussels that the two historically largest groups, the EPP and the Social Democratic group, S&D, have tended to divide positions between them.

Just over a third of the presidents have been from the socialist family, and only two have been liberals, Veil and Pat Cox of Ireland. The rest have been conservatives, either from the EPP or the now defunct European Democrats, who later merged with the EPP.

Of course, the list of diversity gaps is not limited to gender, geography, and politics.

All the presidents of the European Parliament have been white Europeans and, with the exception of the first president, Veil, all were affiliated with versions of the Christian faith. Adding other aspects such as stated sexual orientation, age, and educational and work background would give a similar picture.

So looking at the historical record, a clear picture emerges: the President of the European Parliament is a middle-aged white man, probably German, and with an overwhelming possibility of being a Conservative or a Socialist. In the rare cases where the president is a woman, he will be from France, liberal or conservative.

Secret vote

What unfolds during the next political season depends on political deals and deals.

However, voting is also secret, so what MEPs decide to prioritize can also be decisive. In fact, the past presidential elections have seen diverse candidates in terms of gender, ethnicity and other aspects. They just haven’t been chosen.

Among the current pool of 705 MEPs, there is no shortage of potential candidates who are politically strong and who can help close the diversity gaps described above.

Among them are Sandra Kalniete (EPP); Stelios Kympouropoulos (EPP); Tanja Fajon (S&D); Kathleen van Brempt (S&D); Samira Rafaele (Renew Europe); Dita Charanzova (Renew Europe); Kira Marie Peter-Hansen (Green); Assita Kanko (ECR); Manon Aubry (Left); and Katerina Konecka (Left).

Many more could be added, and this list omits some more obvious possibilities already publicly discussed, such as the conservative Roberta Metsola, an elected member of the bloc’s smallest member state, Malta.

However, this mainly underlines my point: the possibilities for a President of the European Parliament with more diversity credentials are there. The question is whether the various political groups in parliament will prioritize these qualities when presenting their candidates in the coming weeks.

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