IRCT Advocacy Advisor Elena Zacharenko, based in the IRCT’s European Affairs Office, explains the main changes in the political landscape of the European Parliament and speculates on how these alterations could affect the priorities of human rights organisations.
While for most EU citizens the European elections of 25 May might seem like a distant memory, the fallout of the polling day has kept the European Parliament (EP) even busier than usual in the past month and a half. The newly elected (or re-elected) 751 MEPs from the EU’s 28 member states have been frantically trying to set up new groups, coalitions and divide up the numerous vacant posts in the new EP.
One-month after the election it has become clear that the landscape in the new parliament differs significantly from the previous legislature: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group has gone from being the fifth to the third most numerous political family, pushing both the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the European Greens (Greens/EFA) further down in the hierarchy of the EP, meaning fewer chances to obtain agenda-setting committee chairmanships for these groups. Furthermore, the highly eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, previously Europe of Freedom and Democracy) group, despite numerous defections to the ECR, grew by 14 members thanks to the addition of MEPs from the previously absent Italian Five Star Movement.
For the IRCT and other human rights organisations working in Brussels, this suggests that the focus of the EP might turn away from human rights issues within and outside of the EU and towards efforts to dismantle the achievements of EU integration – a worrying trend if it occurs which will require even greater and closer engagement from both the NGOs and the groups which hold human rights close to their hearts.
The chairmanships crucial to IRCT’s work in Brussels have been largely taken by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, which will preside over the Committees on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Development as well as the Subcommittee on Human Rights.
As also the presidency of the entire European Parliament has once again been awarded to S&D’s Martin Schulz, the IRCT European Affairs Office will need to focus on forging a close relationship with key S&D members of parliament as well as the group’s political staffers in order to influence the agenda of the committee meetings and the topics they plan to work on in the coming year. Hopefully the IRCT can expect a continuation of the type of close relationship it enjoyed during the previous legislature with S&D MEP Veronique de Keyser, who authored the EP report on the eradication of torture in the world (passed with a huge majority of 608 votes in favour in March 2014).
However, the dust has not yet completely settled on the EU political arena. It is still not clear which of the 14 newly elected Vice Presidents of the EP will be hold the responsibility for mainstreaming human rights inside the institution and its policies within their portfolio. The post was previously occupied by ALDE’s Edward McMillan Scott, who proved to be and active and vocal supporter of human rights who worked closely with civil society. Time will tell if his successor follows this example.
Outside of the EP, appointments to the EU’s executive body – the European Commission – are still up in the air. The appointees for posts of Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights, Home Affairs, Development, EU Neighbourhood Policy and Health – as well as that of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs – will influence the EU’s action and legislation in areas crucial to the IRCT, notably eradicating torture and providing rehabilitation to victims.
The EU’s current efforts to promote human rights outside of its borders as well as ensure victims’ rights within them need to be vastly enhanced. The EU’s new top leaders will play a deciding role in this process and therefore must act decisively against torture.