One of the three main parts of the European Parliament’s administrative support structure encompasses MEPs’ personal assistants. These personal assistants are, however, not only important actors in the administrative support. They play an influential yet poorly understood role in European Parliament’s everyday practice of politics, so that they may in fact be described as hidden actors. Indeed, these assistants filter and provide tailored information to MEPs, who are, as a result, more successful when it comes to exerting influence in the EP. Finally, the assistants act as an “information interface” within the MEP office, and therefore play an important part in MEPs’ practice of politics.
The general image of a personal assistant may resemble that of an old-fashioned secretary, with a rotary dial phone and a tray full of coffee, but the opposite is true for MEPs’ personal assistants. They are freely chosen by MPs within a budget set by the EP and their activities includedrafting legislation, organising activities and researching background information. Furthermore, they are responsible for helping MEPs in their role as legislator and scrutiniser. In this role, personal assistants advice MEPs on how to vote and contribute to policy ideas. Since cultural, moral and political prejudices play a role in representing information and writing articles, it is almost impossible to be fully objective (this applies for every human being, not only for political assistants).
Another important task of the personal assistants is to manage and organise MEPs’ diaries. Although that may seem as a pure administrative activity, the following quote proves this is not the case: “MEPs’ diaries are constantly full and are managed by assistants slotting 15-minute meetings in around the EP’s official calendar of groups, committee, and plenary meetings. Organising the diary is the first priority of the office; like a cornerstone, little else will function if this does not, and politics cannot be practiced successfully” Busby remarks. As a MEP meets with many interest groups, committees etcetera, it is of great importance in which order the MEP sees these different actors of decision-making. While lobbying for a specific objective, it helps when the MEP sees more lobbyists with the same goal (e.g. a prohibition of selling narcotics) in a short period of time, therefore, the personal assistant has a defining role in deciding the sequence of meetings of the MEP.
It becomes apparent, then, that personal assistants could pursue their own political agenda by focusing on specific ideological/political objectives in, for example, drafting legislation. Obviously, this provides opportunities for influencing MEPs. Moreover, “essential basic tasks for office staff are to sort the post, emails, and phone calls, and to filter out irrelevant communications and extract relevant information for the MEP, to manage the information overload.” Naturally, the filtering of information provides another opportunity for personal assistants to influence MEPs.
There are different types of MEPs personal assistants:
(i) Assistants to Vice-Presidents and Quaestors are temporary agents who assist the Vice-President in the exercise of their duties. They work under the direction and authority of their Vice-President, whom they can also accompany to missions.
(ii) Accredited parliamentary assistants (APAs) are chosen by a Member or a group of Members and employed under a direct contract with the European Parliament. They are based on Parliament’s premises, in one of its three places of work – Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg – and assist Members directly in their work, under their direction and authority and on a basis of mutual trust.
(iii) Local assistants assist MEPs in the Member States in which they were elected.
(iv) Service providers assist MEPs in the Member State in which they were elected. The services to be provided must be targeted, detailed and directly linked to the exercise of the Member’s parliamentary mandate.
(v) Paying agents work in a Member State to manage, on a professional basis, the tax and social security matters arising from the employment contracts or service contracts concluded by the Member.
(vi) Trainees are people who have signed a traineeship agreement with a Member. Traineeships contribute to education and European vocational training and promote a better understanding of the workings of Parliament. They can take place either on Parliament’s premises or in the Member State in which the Member was elected.
It is usual, though not universal, for assistants to be part of the same political group or party as their MEP. This shared political outlook, the long hours and the variety of tasks normally mean that a close working understanding between MEPs and their assistants is vital.
Assistants have a key role in supporting MEPs to cope with an information overloaded work environment, through an exploratory, descriptive and interdisciplinary approach. The Liston treaty has increased the phenomenon of information overload. Indeed, it has contributed to augmenting MEPs’ already heavy legislative workload. Other valid reasons contributing to these dynamics are the highly technical nature of EU legislation, the high volume of information MEP offices receive every day, and the growing means through which communications can be sent (an aspect that became even more complex in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic).
In fact, since the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament gained new and broader competences into new legislative areas. The Treaty, which came in force in late 2009, brought new law-making powers to the European Parliament and put it on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers in deciding what the EU does and how the EU budget is spent. It also changed the way the Parliament works with other institutions and gave MEPs more influence on who runs the EU. All these reforms ensured that by casting EU citizens’ votes in the European elections, they get to have an even greater say on where Europe is heading. All of these new opportunities came with a great deal of obligations and responsibilities, and resulted in an increased workload for MEPs, and their assistants of course.
“It is almost conventional wisdom that politicians cannot make all their decisions alone”, if, on the top of that, we add absenteeism and travels to different EP’s headquarters (Bruxelles, Luxemburg, Strasbourg), and the State in which the MEP was elected, it is obvious and logical that a single person cannot do the MEP’s job all alone.
Moreover, the high turnover shall also be taken into consideration when analysing the crucial role of MEPs’ assistants. The turnover at each EP election is a high one: data report that 50%, more or less, of EU citizens representatives change every five years. Thus, MEPs’ assistants play an important role in supporting MEPs as they learn how the institution works. The assistants guarantee a degree of stability in the rapidly changing political environment of the European Union.
A MEP explained the importance of assistants: whilst he is absent from Brussels his assistants are his “eyes and ears”, trusted to “spot and catch” important developments and refer back to him. The “information interface”, after this direct witness, acquires a real and tangible meaning. MEPs assistants play an essential role in keeping the institution ticking over whilst MEPs are absent. MEPs are constantly travelling, and have an extremely busy agenda; therefore, they need assistants to filter the overload to help them make decisions and prepare efficiently for performances. The backstage role of assistants is crucial for politicians, as “the quality of the decision relies upon the quality of the information available”. Assistants’ information management role means they are powerful actors in EU politics.
The political role of personal assistants is thus clearly highly underrated. These assistants have many opportunities to influence MEPs, even before they vote on a proposal, and they can influence the decision-making process within the European Parliament. In February 2016, the total number of personal assistants employed by MEPs was 3703, this indicates the enormous number of personal assistants acting as political actors without ever going through a process of elections. Arguably, this contributes to the democratic deficit of the European Union.
Authors: Giulia Grandin and Annelien Zaal
Busby, Amy and Kheira Belkacem: “Coping with the information overload”: An exploration of assistants' backstage role in the everyday practice of European Parliament politics’, in: Ripoll Servent, Ariadna and Amy Busby (eds): ‘Agency and influence inside the EU institutions’, European Integration online Papers (EIoP), Special Issue 1, Vol. 17, Article 4, http://eiop.or.at/eiop/texte/2013-004a.htm , pp. 1-28.
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