Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A Week as a Romanian S&D MEP

From 10th-17th April I was a Romanian MEP for the S&D group in the Model European Union 2010 event in Strasbourg, and it was definitely a memorable week.** MEU did an amazing job trying to recreate the whole experience of the EU political system: people played the roles of MEPs, Council ministers, interpreters, lobbyists and journalists. This post will be part report, and part MEP's diary for the week, but considering the number of roles and work and experiences that the event took in, its inevitably a snapshot from a (sometimes tired) MEP arguing for a few amendments in a sea of activity, as journalists filmed, took photos and published daily newspapers, interpreters strove to make sense of what MEPs were saying, lobbyists tried to persuade creatively (I even saw some €500 notes exchanging hands!), Council ministers maneuvered, and MEPs fought to make themselves and their opinions heard. And all in the grand setting of the Strasbourg Parliament building itself.

The two topics we had to deal with were a GMO Regulation proposal and the Returns directive proposal. Both went through the co-decision (or "ordinary legislative procedure" in today's Lisbon-slang), though due to time constraints (a phrase which became notorious over the course of the week), there was no conciliation committee at the end if the Council and Parliament failed to agree after 2 readings. Parliament started off with the GMO proposal, made amendments, then switched to the Returns directive to amend it and the Council's amendments, then finally switched back to the GMO proposal, as amended by the Council for the final vote to pass into law. (For the Council it was the same, just with the topics reversed). Before the simulation started, we had prepared for our roles - in the case of EP parties, we worked on common position papers - and in Strasbourg we had parliamentary procedure and debating workshops.

So this is my week as "S&D Romania".

**(In fact, two weeks: not only was there the event itself, but it happened to take place during perhaps the most news-filled week of the year, and then I had to take the scenic route home via Germany, the Netherlands and England. In February, when I went to The Hague, the Dutch government collapsed the day before I left. This time, there was the Polish plane crash, another plane crash, a French train strike, the biggest volcanic eruption in Europe for years, the grounding of nearly all European air travel, and the LibDems became popular in the UK. I'm expecting the US government to subsidise a trip to China for me any day now!)

In Parliament: Round #1: GMO Regulation.

The GMO Regulation aimed to regulated GM food and feed in the single market. It had been difficult finding out the Romanian S&D positions, and I'd done some research on GMOs in Romania, which had problems with contamination. The S&D as a whole wanted a lower threshold for contamination (which started off at 1% in the proposal, so something less than that) after which it would have to be labelled as a GM product. I lobbied for a small as lenient a threshold as possible for the position paper, though I was always going to be outvoted, so I tried lobbying for some sort of insurance against contamination, which was adopted as a negotiating position. Apart from that, we wanted stricter controls on GM and more frequent renewals for authorised GM, as well as more impartial scientific control over authorisation.

The Parliament (which took place in the S&D's party room in the Parliament building), consisted of 110 MEPs, and was dominated by the centre-right, like the real Parliament. The EPP had 42 MEPs to our 28. The Liberals tended to be the swing vote faction, and potentially decisive in passing amendments - though this only really struck us when it came to voting time!

Speech-wise the far left and far right were the stars, with loud (and at times worryingly charismatic) speeches on nationality and on the evils of capitalism. Lobbyists were also called in to be interviewed and questioned by Parliament. Though it started off easy-going, things got a lot harder when we realised that we had pretty much only dinner to draw up amendments, since we had a charity Gala that night. Our party split up into amendment groups, and I was in one on insurance. We ran into a few problems on what scheme to come up with and deciding on what would be the best way to phrase it so it would pass. We ended up with 2 good ideas but sadly - due to time constraints - we only put one forward. We proposed an insurance scheme that the authorisation holders would pay into to insure against the costs of any large scale damage caused by the crop even though authorisation conditions were complied with.

When Parliament opened again, there was a free-form secession, with MEPs running everywhere to make coalitions and sell their amendments. We tried speaking to some party leaders and any MEPs we could get our hands on (who were naturally delighted to be cornered on the issue of insurance!). Parliament then went through the amendments one by one, with MEPs introducing their amendments. There was a long debate on the threshold, the expense of labelling and on how often authorisation of GMOs should be renewed. When it came to the vote, I knew that we had the Greens and the United Left on our side for the insurance amendment, but that wouldn't be enough for it to pass. It could only pass if other parties split or MEPs rebelled against their party lines.

Luckily for us, the Liberals split (from what I could see of the red and green lights blinking on in front of their MEPs), and our insurance amendment passed by 56 to 52! (We only seemed to have all MEPs present for the final vote on Friday).

Unfortunately some good amendments that would have given the Parliament more oversight and control of the process were defeated, and the voting highlighted the need for more networking and lobbying. We then elected a Rapporteur to present the EP's amendments to the Council.

Round #2: Returns Directive.

A Council minister presented the Council's amendments to the Parliament before we quizzed him on the details. At this point most parties and MEPs seemed to switch to full human rights mode, and some of the right-wing parties acted slightly more left-wing (in some cases) than I expected. Once again the far-right EFD group and United Left had the most strident (and entertaining) speeches. [But a few of us weren't about to let them have all the fun, and we formed a kind of informal inter-party group. It's an old game, but we challenged each other to slip Father Ted and Star Wars references into our speeches in such a way as to make them seem a natural part of the speech. Though proclaiming that the Council might strike back may have been pushing it.]

Meanwhile, the insurance amendment must have been unexpected, and the Council asked for someone to be sent up to explain it. I volunteered, and got a grilling from the Dutch and Maltese ministers, whom I gave my best politician answers. The Council was sealed off from the public (and journalists and lobbyists), so it was only at lunch I could ask around to see how the amendment was fairing. The news wasn't good, though it seemed to depend on who was asked.

In the Parliament, however, the knives were definitely out as MEPs got ready to drastically rewrite the Council's amendments and the rest of the directive. Once again MEPs swarmed about the hemicycle trying to make alliances on amendments. I ended up talking to the EPP and ECR on rewriting a new article 15 that the Council had introduced. Worryingly, some parties became more fragmented towards the end and there were a few voting rebellions, though luckily the S&D group seemed to become more cohesive towards the end; article 15 seemed to be something we all generally agreed on though, and it passed with 104 votes.

It might have turned out to have aggravated the Council, though - from what I heard from the Council, they were always worried about what would and wouldn't pass through Parliament, while MEPs barely mentioned the Council. Council negotiations also sounded long and detailed, whereas MEPs were ruthless in cutting speaking time. Though the Council is more powerful and influential in real life, in the simulation sheer numbers meant that Ministers didn't have a big personal influence on MEPs, and didn't figure much in MEPs' political considerations, while the lack of the technical staff and advice meant that 27 people had to do the same amount of work that 110 people were doing in the EP. Perhaps having a team (1 Minister + aides) would help rebalance things and get more people involved?

Round #3: Final Vote.

The Council returned a heavily amended version of the GMO Regulation to Parliament, and the Minister presenting it had to deal with some typos in the text (which she did very well). It turned out that the insurance amendment had survived - thanks probably to QMV which meant there needed to be a super-majority to remove it. Though Parliament was unhappy with some of what was changed (and there were some serious typos), it was passed into law with 63 votes.

Overall MEU 2010 was a brilliant experience. It was hectic, meeting lots of new people, making speeches, working on amendments and alliances, and a full social programme with stuff to do every night (tours, parties, etc.). It was tiring but very rewarding, and I'd recommend it to everyone. The MEU 2010 website is here. I applied in January 2010, so I'm guessing that January 2011 will be the deadline month for participants next year. They also do national MEUs in some areas, so that might be worth looking into.

If you're wavering about going, then just go for it! I can't recommend it enough.


  1. wow, two legislations and the draft are passed between the EP and the Council all the time - that's really stressful. But it sounds like you experienced a very realistic picture, with some MEPs only showing up for the final vote and the heads of groups having trouble to keep their troops together. If you're interested, there is also an association called EuroSIM that organizes simulations regularly. There are always pretty brainy Americans present who show the Europeans that you don't have to live in Europe to know the Union.

  2. The EPP had a big challenge keeping their party united; it was so big that it was hard to get everyone together for a proper discussion, so it must have been hard to keep MEPs on side if they didn't feel as involved. The S&D were lucky in having 28 - any more and the party would probably have been unwieldy.

    Thanks for the link!

  3. daniele martinelli17 May 2010 at 01:25

    EPP Germany, present!

    First of all Conor, let me say that your blog is really brilliant and I can’t agree with you more about the need for Europe of a “citizen-centred vision that can deliver for citizens and involve them in building a pan-continental future”.

    Back to the topic: being a member of EPP, actually one of its coordinators, I can confirm your statements. It was almost impossible to work. Sometimes I wasn’t even aware that someone was submitting an amendment. It was so stressful to try to keep the party united and with 1 clear idea to support. Btw those were the most challenging moments: for us diplomacy was firstly an art to be used inside our own party! I can’t really say that we were divided into several wings but each one of us tended to act following a prevailing nationalistic attitude. But at the very end we managed to be united in diversity!

    Thanks for your contributions

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  5. Hi Daniele (sorry for the late reply - I've had exams recently),

    Thanks! Luckily we were just small enough to co-ordinate (or at least not splinter too much). Though we did have one or two rebels - and one surprised us all by submitting an amendment without telling anyone in the party (which is a strange tactic, since if you don't tell anyone about it, then it doesn't have much hope of passing...).