BRUSSELS — One of the most powerful jobs in the European Union is up for grabs Tuesday — but few on this continent know about the election.
The president of the European Parliament, a bit like the U.S. House speaker, has a sweeping ability to dictate the course of legislation that will affect the half-billion E.U. residents. But the race for the vacant job has generated little attention, despite efforts by European leaders to boost the legitimacy of the 28-nation bloc.
As Europe struggles like never before in its modern history to hold itself together, its leaders’ success will depend on their ability to convince citizens that the E.U. headquarters of Brussels serves ordinary people, not itself. Failure could mean an E.U. breakup. Worriers point toward the world wars, the likes of which the E.U. was designed to avert.
Which is why the silence about the Parliament’s president is an ominous sign for the European Union’s future. At a time when President-elect Donald Trump fetes European leaders who aim to break up the bloc, advocates of the border-free European dream need to seize every chance they can to connect with citizens.
“From the outside, it’s an example of everything that’s wrong with the European Parliament and everything that’s wrong with the idea there’s an E.U.-level democracy,” said Giles Merritt, founder of Friends of Europe, a pro-E. U. think tank.
The European Parliament is a frequent target of euroskeptic forces across the continent, even though it was designed to give the E.U. a sprinkling of democratically elected leaders amid the unelected bureaucrats who write regulations covering such varied sectors as the safety of tomatoes, vehicle pollution and Facebook’s business practices.
It is an easy institution to mock. Packed with 751 members, it cannot propose any legislation but can only give a stamp of approval to laws that emerge from the bureaucracy of the European Commission. Some of its members are idealists or eminent former ministers from their home countries who throw themselves into the complicated business of reviewing regulations and holding agencies accountable. Others are party flunkies searching for a well-paid, low-stress sinecure.
The entire apparatus — legislators, assistants, translators, journalists and lobbyists — travels to Strasbourg one week a month to the Parliament’s second seat. Why? Because France wants it that way and it is baked into E.U. treaties, so no one can change it. The schlep costs about $118 million a year, according to auditors. Oh, and the European Parliament’s administrative staff? They’re in Luxembourg.
“The European Parliament is an institution that actually has a lot of power but at the end of the day, limited responsibility,” since there are few ways to oust lawmakers during their five-year terms, said Alexander Stubb, who was a member of the legislature before becoming Finland’s prime minister from 2014 to 2015.
The presidency “is still one of the top five jobs that you can have in Europe,” he said. “It’s a big post and you need to respect it.”
But few ordinary European citizens are aware there is a race, nor are they familiar with the candidates, who will be voted on by their fellow legislators. Instead, national politics is dominating headlines: Britain is engulfed by turmoil over its impending E.U. exit. France is consumed by a presidential election that an anti-E. U. candidate might win. And anti-immigrant forces are breathing down German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s neck ahead of autumn elections there.
Seven candidates are competing for the legislature’s top job, which was vacated in November by Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat who quit to consider running for chancellor in his native Germany. Only three longtime insiders have any chance of winning: a protege of the flamboyant center-right Italian ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi; a veteran center-left Italian candidate; and Belgium’s centrist former prime minister.
Critics say none of them offer fresh ideas to shake up the institution.
“This has been a result of the old boys’ network,” Helga Stevens, a Belgian candidate for the presidency from a small center-right party, said at a debate Wednesday. “Five men from a small amount of countries have been running the E.U. for the last few years.”
But the insiders themselves say they see nothing wrong with the arrangement.
“Anyone who is president of the European Parliament is going to be some kind of insider, otherwise he wouldn’t be elected,” said Manfred Weber, head of the largest bloc in the European Parliament, the center-right European People’s Party.
He made the comment at a news conference he held to complain that his party’s candidate, former Berlusconi spokesman Antonio Tajani, had to run in a competitive race at all, since he said that opposing parties signed a secret agreement in 2014 to throw support to the center-right party after 2½ years of center-left control. (The opponents admit to signing the agreement but say it no longer applies.)
Tajani has offered few specifics for his vision for the Parliament.
“We need a strong president, a strong Parliament,” he said at this week’s debate.
The spectacle has many independent pro-European advocates wringing their hands.
“This is a deal among the establishment parties, but there are political revolutions going on in national politics,” said Heather Grabbe, head of the Open Society European Policy Institute.