There are two sure-fire ways of making easy money. The first is to bet someone €10 to name the previous year’s Eurovision winner (or even the current year’s winner). The other way is to bet someone that they can’t name five Belgian members of the European Parliament (MEPs). However, it’s so easy to win that bet, that you should be ashamed of yourself for making it.
However, as informed citizens, we should be concerned by this general lack of knowledge of our representatives in the European Parliament (EP). Or should we be? Just how important are these MEPs to us and what role do they play in the calculus of Europe and the Member States they represent?
Answer: not at all! Seemingly, the usual candidates for a seat in the European Parliament are those that are tired of the combative, language-oriented national politics and are ready to be handsomely rewarded by their party for services proffered. Not only do they not have to answer to their constituency because in fact, they don’t represent Belgium, but rather represent the party they are affiliated with in the European Parliament. They also have an expense allocation that would make a Fortune 500 company president jealous.
In Belgium the more prominent examples of these castaways are the late Wilfied Martens and Jean-Luc Dehaene and the current EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen, who was previously an EU parliamentarian.
Once you have run out of steam in national politics, you’re ready for the EU. After more than 12 years as Prime Minister, Wilfried Martens was elected to the EU Parliament, where he fell into oblivion, except for moments when he was hauled out by the Belgian media as a doyenne of the European political theatre to comment on the current scene.
After serving as Prime Minister of Belgium for seven years, Jean-Luc Dehaene brought his political skills to the European Parliament. There, he took up the various causes of the EU, while maintaining an active detachment from Belgian politics.
Marianne Thyssen is unique among politicians. She took the opposite route. She went from the genteel world of the EU to become the leader of the CD&V (the Flemish Christian Democrats). After an election defeat during her tenure, it was back to the safety and anonymity of the European Parliament, where the standard fare for policy-making debates is dull, speak-no-harm-lest-they-offend someone-in the-world speeches and a brief exchange of conventional wisdom.
I don’t mean to single out the CD&V; the parties in Wallonia also use the European Parliament as their golden graveyard. Louis Michel went from Belgium’s Foreign Minister to a member of the European Commission, where he served as Commissioner for Research before settling into the post of Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid. Better known for its photo ops featuring a smiling Commissioner with an outsized check for some project that has a less than 50-50 chance of even getting off the ground. Finally he became a European Parliament member where he has displayed the detachment of a man who has done it all before and has nothing left to prove.
We shouldn’t forget to mention Gérard Deprez who left the real world of Belgian politics for the next world of the European Parliament in 1984, and hasn’t been heard of since. There are more to mention, but by now, you get the message.
We may not be able to change the system, but we can follow our parliamentarians closer and let them know that we are watching. Who knows? They may become more responsive, become the focus of attention and have to serve the people who put them in their place of privilege.
For those of you who care or want to win the bet, below you’ll find a list of the 21 Belgian EU parliamentarians with their party affiliation in the European Parliament and the Belgian party they represent.
Gerolf ANNEMANS Europe of Nations and Freedom Group Belgium: Vlaams Belang Maria ARENA Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament Belgium: Parti Socialiste
Pascal ARIMONT Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) Belgium: Christlich Soziale Partei Hugues BAYET Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament Belgium: Parti Socialiste
Ivo BELET Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) Belgium: Christen-Democratisch & Vlaams
Philippe DE BACKER Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Belgium: Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten
Mark DEMESMAEKER European Conservatives and Reformists Group Belgium: Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie
Gérard DEPREZ Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Belgium: Mouvement Réformateur
Philippe LAMBERTS Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance Belgium: Ecologistes Confédérés pour l’Organisation de Luttes Originales
Sander LOONES European Conservatives and Reformists Group Belgium: Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie
Louis MICHEL Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Belgium: Mouvement Réformateur
Frédérique RIES Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Belgium: Mouvement Réformateur
Claude ROLIN Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) Belgium: Centre Démocrate Humaniste
Bart STAES Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance Belgium: Groen
Helga STEVENS European Conservatives and Reformists Group Belgium: Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie
Marc TARABELLA Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament Belgium: Parti Socialiste