Helga Stevens: My Parliament presidency bid gives MEPs a real choice

Written by Julie Levy-Abegnoli on 8 November 2016 in Interviews
Interviews

Helga Stevens is ready to knock Martin Schulz off his parliamentary throne. Here, explains why she believes she would be better able to represent all MEPs, how her leadership style would differ from Schulz's and how she would put an end to shady backroom deals.

Helga Stevens

Helga Stevens | Photo credit: Natalie Hill


As The Parliament Magazine went to print, the world was holding its breath while Americans gear up to select a new commander-in-chief. By the time you read this, you might be suffering from acute election fatigue. For those of us in Brussels, however, there is no time for political slumber, as the European Parliament could find itself with a new leader in just a few months. 

It all depends, of course, on whether Martin Schulz goes after an unprecedented third term, which itself depends on whether the EPP group - one half of the so-called 'Grand Coalition' - puts forward a candidate, or decides to back the German MEP.

With a growing number of deputies seemingly exasperated with Schulz's tight grip on the parliamentary crown, could the field be blown wide open?


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ECR group deputy Helga Stevens certainly thinks so. The Belgian is Parliament's first declared presidency hopeful. "I'd like to run for Parliament President because I believe that I can bring a change in the way Parliament currently functions. 

"I don't see enough transparency and openness, because everything is controlled by the Grand Coalition. That is not really a democratic process. Through my candidacy, I would like to give all MEPs a real choice, and I believe this coming election is the first one that is truly open to that possibility, because the two largest groups are not agreeing on one candidate."

But considering she doesn't belong to either of Parliament's largest groupings, just how much of a chance does Stevens think she has at nabbing the top spot, really? Of course she believes she has a shot, but it's not really about that, she says.

"Regardless of the Grand Coalition and what they're doing, I believe I am offering all my colleagues real choice and that will make an impact. They have a real choice to pick an individual they'd like and that can send a signal that the European Parliament President should be chosen by the MEPs themselves, and not through part of an agreement made by a very limited number of individuals."

Stevens is adamant that her not belonging to the Grand Coalition is actually to her advantage. "Regardless of who is elected, the President should be chosen by all MEPs and should represent all MEPs equally.

"If Schulz is re-elected, he would be a candidate of the Grand Coalition, which is not representative of all 751 MEPs. That isn't good for democracy, because democracy is inherent on all being involved, and all should be open to discussion and debate. 

"All the political groups should have a say, because the role of the President is to unite everyone - that means they have to represent all MEPs." 

At the moment, she argues, that is not the case, because "Schulz is involved in backroom deals with a just a few men from a few countries, and I don't think that is good for democracy."

It's all well and good to want to unite and represent all MEPs, but can you really do that if you belong to a fairly Eurosceptic group and a Nationalist party (Stevens belongs to the N-VA, the Flemish nationalists)?

That's a good question, admits Stevens with a smile. "I believe that all political parties are all somehow nationalist, and that representatives are elected to stand up for their own individual countries and those interests." Whether the European federalists would agree is another question. 

"Where my party stands is more of an inclusive kind of nationalism and most importantly, we stand for self-determination. The problem in Belgium is not one of one group of people against another, it's a structural issue, with structures in place since the 19th century that have not evolved with the times."

But, she is quick to add, "Everyone is welcome to live in Flanders if they'd like, as long as they accept our basic values like equality between men and women, separation of church and state and so on. 

"As long as people accept our values and are willing to live under our legal system, then they're welcome. Our nationalism is not to exclude people, and that's a fundamental difference from other groups I will not mention by name."

So how exactly would this all-inclusive presidency work, and how would Stevens' leadership style differ from that of Schulz? "I'd like to make the whole parliamentary process more transparent, starting with the bureau.

"Regarding the Conference of Presidents, I'd like to include all the Presidents of all the groups in debate and in decision-making. At the moment, the decisions are made by Schulz and the Chairs of the two largest groups, and they decide everything. I would give all the group leaders a chance to speak and achieve a consensus.

"Second, the appointment of senior officials would also be more transparent. They should come from all corners of Europe and be represented proportionately and appropriately within Parliament. 

"I'd also like the democratic process to be more open and try and involve more MEPs, such as those from smaller groups as well as backbenchers, and not just give them one minute's speaking time, but really try and find a way to encourage substantive debate, where several people can contribute and try and find solutions for the many challenges we face."

Challenges, the most oft-spoken word in the EU lingo dictionary. It's also something the Brussels institutions have so far failed to tackle adequately, says Stevens. 

"We have to consider the question of why people are becoming Eurosceptic. The EU is not meeting their expectations, and we have to wonder why that is. I think the EU could be more effective if there was a focus on the areas of great importance to people, like migration and security. People question the value of the EU - at the moment, the EU is not making enough of a difference for them."

A key issue for Stevens, a member of Parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, is security. "We must guard our borders, exchange more information about different police services and cooperate with each other a bit more."

Beyond that, she says, "The European Parliament needs to focus on real issues. At the moment for example, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker would like to give free train tickets to young people. This is a nice idea, but will it really make much of a difference? We should be focusing on investing in the economy and attracting businesses."

Stevens is also committed to policies relating to people with disabilities; she was herself born deaf. However, she does not feel this has necessarily been a barrier for her. "Of course, it would be easier to pick up the phone, but that's just part of my life, you just accept that and move on."

She uses sign language interpreters at work, which she does not see as that much different to other MEPs using interpreters because they do not know other languages. And, she notes, the advent of social media has revolutionised the way in which she is able to interact with constituents.

Still, her deafness has certainly helped shape her career and she served as President of the European Union of the Deaf from 2005 to 2007, and when she first got involved in politics 12 years ago, her focus was on people with disabilities.

Before that, Stevens was a lawyer - she trained in Belgium, the UK and the US - and that work is what motivated her to enter politics.

"I realised that as an attorney, I could impact one person's life, but if I was involved in politics, I could make a difference for a very large group of people."

Will she be able to make a difference for a very large group of MEPs come election time?

 

About the author

Julie Levy-Abegnoli is a journalist for the Parliament Magazine

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