Parliament turns from retirement home to nursery

Ten heads of state or government and 100 ministers sharpened their political teeth in the European Parliament, giving them an advantage in EU politics, but it is a trend Ireland has not followed.

Parliament turns from retirement home to nursery

The role of MEP is often thought of as the ultimate gravy-train for politicians, but it is fast becoming a nursery for new entrants rather than a retirement home for those at the end of their career.

French President François Hollande, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, the current prime ministers of Greece, Denmark, Belgium, and Malta, and the British deputy prime minister are all graduates of the European Parliament.

So are the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Hungary, Austria’s vice-chancellor, the Cypriot foreign minister, the Greek finance minister, and the agriculture ministers of Denmark, France, and Spain

There is also the Spanish foreign affairs minister and finance minister, and the Dutch finance minister and European affairs minister. Add to this an array of other ministers across EU governments and the former prime ministers of Latvia and Portugal.

Ireland has been slow catching onto this, with Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney the only member of the Cabinet to have done time in Brussels and Strasbourg.

While he could be accused of rushing home with undue haste to take a Dáil seat, his experience stood him in good stead when he managed the final critical negotiations on a decades-long reform of the EU’s single biggest budget issue — agriculture. And for good measure he also concluded reform talks over fish during Ireland’s presidency last year.

Ray MacSharry was an MEP for three years from 1984 before becoming finance minister and a European commissioner. Patrick Hillery was Ireland’s first commissioner before becoming Ireland’s president.

The usual approach is to send experienced politicians like Jim Higgins and Pat the Cope Gallagher, who have already served time in government, to the European Parliament to ensure parties win the seat.

Pat Cox has been Ireland’s highest profile MEP, becoming president of the parliament and continuing to play a role in EU affairs, such as in the latest efforts to find a resolution to the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Dick Roche, a former European affairs minister for Fianna Fáil, has taken advantage of connections made throughout the EU to now offer his services as a consultant and lobbyist.

But generally Ireland makes little use of its former MEPs — with some parties putting up more crowd-friendly nameswho take a seat from those who have gained experience and standing in Brussels.

The parliament, with its links to all the biggest democracies and ruling parties in the world, and offering an introduction to future political leaders and control over a budget 25 times the size of Ireland’s, means good experience that could be an asset nationally.

The Nordic and Eastern European countries appear to have adopted this approach almost as a policy now, with dozens of their current ministers having spent time in the European Parliament.

This has also lowered the average age of their deputies and while they may move into national politics, taking with them the experience they gained, the list system offers a chance to return. Since they will be placed near the top of their political party’s list, they are almost guaranteed to get a seat and so are not reluctant to move between parliaments.

The French and Belgians adopt a slightly different approach, rotating their most able politicians between being regional leaders and big-city mayors with a stint in the European Parliament before being called back to the capital to serve in the government where, frequently, ministers have been selected rather than elected.

A study by the centre-right EPP’s Robert Schuman Foundation says that the best team for any country and for the parliament is to have a good mix of veterans and newcomers. Experience is taken into account when posts and the all-important jobs of writing reports on legislation are distributed.

The French believe that with just a quarter of their 74 MEPs serving more than two terms, they are at a disadvantage compared to Britons and Germans, where up to half have been there for more than 10 years.

But age is no block to ambition in the parliament where youth and experience is important: Ska Keller, the German MEP who won the primaries organised by her party, the Greens, to become their nominee for the job of Commission president, is just 32 years old.

* For the latest election news and analysis visit our special Election 2014 section.

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