Committee chairs have an important role in the work of the European Parliament, but what factors influence the allocation of key committee positions to MEPs? Drawing on a new study, Mihail Chiru explains that seniority in the role appears to matter more for a candidate’s selection than partisan credentials, committee sector knowledge or ties with special interests. Improving the selection process could allow committees to draw more efficiently on MEPs’ institutional knowledge and policy expertise.

The policy influence of the European Parliament (EP) depends heavily on the quality of the work conducted in its committees and the allocation of key committee positions to politicians who have the skills, knowledge and gravitas to draft, amend and negotiate legislation with representatives of the Council of the EU and the European Commission.

While several academic studies have considered the attributes that make individual Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) more likely to become rapporteurs, we still know very little about what drives the selection of the politicians who chair the EP’s committees. This is unfortunate given that chairs have the ability to shape the agenda of the committee, solve jurisdictional disputes with other committees, and often serve themselves as rapporteurs and participate in inter-institutional negotiations.

Committee chairs have also increased news visibility compared to other MEPs and they frequently use the position as a springboard for other highly prestigious political offices at EU or national level. Thus, several EP committee chairs have gone on to become Commissioners, presidents of European Party Groups or ministers in national cabinets.

Beyond these individual career aspects, from an institutional efficiency perspective it would be important to know whether the growth in the legislative role of the EP and in the influence of committee chairs has also brought about an increase in the value of committee specialisation and chair seniority for appointment to this office. Such a development would be the predicted outcome if indeed the EP has become more institutionalised and professionalised in recent decades.

Formally, committee chair selection in the EP is governed by proportionality rules, with respect to the size of the European Party Groups and the national delegations within them, while informally, there is also an interdependence between their distribution and the allocation of other legislative offices.

In a recent study, I analysed 115 committee chair elections which took place in the European Parliament from the second to the seventh legislative term. One of the main conclusions from these analyses was that chair appointment conforms to a logic of office allocation also observed for other salient offices in the EP: it mainly serves the informational needs of the European Party Groups and a premium is put on experience in the role, acquired in the EP and less so on pure policy expertise. The figure below illustrates that MEPs who have served in the past as committee chairs have a higher probability of being appointed again in the same position – not necessarily in the same committee, although the effect is not particularly strong.

Figure: Probability of being appointed as a committee chair depending on past experience in the role

Note: For more information, see the author’s accompanying study in the Journal of European Public Policy

A positive normative implication of selecting experienced chairs is that such a strategy can help develop and maintain a consistent role and image of the committee both for MEPs and outsiders. This was the case for the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) which became a champion of environmental causes under 15 years of leadership from Ken Collins or for the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET), as its image and prestige were shaped by the 18 years in which Elmar Brok was its chair.

The analyses conducted on our longitudinal sample (thirty years of data) failed to uncover evidence for the existence of a diachronic increase in the relevance of committee seniority or chair seniority for chair selection – which one might have expected, given the growing role of the EP in EU legislative politics and the associated higher stakes for using the legislature’s resources effectively.

This is particularly problematic since in many policy fields the EP’s empowerment with the extension of co-decision has led to the need to compromise and accept frequently suboptimal policy outcomes, which go against positions and preferences EP committees have held and defended for a long time. Because of this, having experienced chairs who know how to play the co-decision game, how to act in inter-institutional negotiations and other settings is crucial for the EP to make the most out of its formal empowerment.

Another relevant finding is that the levels of voting loyalty towards the European Party Groups do not influence committee chair selection in the EP at all. This could imply that European Party Groups mostly see committee chairs as procedural managers and they are not concerned that chairs could influence the reports debated in their committees in ways which would deviate from the preferred policy positions of the group.

For two of the terms it was also possible to test whether MEPs who had ties with special interests that had been active in the committee’s policy area enjoyed a better chance to be appointed as chairs. It turned out that this was not the case, which can be interpreted as a positive finding given the concerns about the disproportional influence of corporate lobbies over EU legislation.

All in all, the selection of committee chairs in the EP appears to follow a predictable pattern. Within the limits of the strict party proportionality rules, seniority in the role matters more than partisan credentials, committee sector knowledge or ties with special interests. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for improvement especially with regard to using more efficiently MEPs’ institutional knowledge and their policy expertise acquired in house or elsewhere.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying study in the Journal of European Public Policy

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: © European Union 2017 – European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

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About the author

Mihail Chiru – UCLouvain
Mihail Chiru holds a PhD in Political Science from the Central European University and is currently a MOVE-IN Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institut de Sciences Politques Louvain-Europe (@ISPOLE_UCL) at UCLouvain. His main academic interests include legislative behaviour and legislative organisation, party politics and electoral studies. He is on Twitter @MihailChiru

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