European Parliament orthodoxy is that one of the least attractive posts for a member is as co-ordinator for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) on the budgetary control committee. But Ingeborg Grässle thrives on the role.
The 49-year-old German, typically seen rushing from meeting to meeting clutching documents and trailing a retinue of aides, has won respect as a guru on the European Union budget. Grässle is making a name for herself.
She was a relative unknown from Heidenheim, a town in Baden-Würtenburg, when she first became an MEP in 2004. She took on the task – usually seen as thankless – of handling budgetary and auditing issues on the – often seen as tedious – budgetary control committee. Since then, Grässle has handled the annual EU budget, the fight against mismanagement of EU funds in Bulgaria, and pressing the European Commission to make the work of OLAF, its anti-fraud office, more effective.
She became co-ordinator and party whip for the German delegation of the EPP in 2007, and has wielded increasing influence in both the budgetary control and the budgets committees, championing more transparency and accountability for EU spending.
Elected for a second term last year, Grässle does not have much time to relax these days. But she claims to draw inspiration and new ideas while away from the office. “I get my best ideas when I am swimming or ironing clothes,” Grässle says.
Regardless of her portrayal of herself as a proper Swabian Hausfrau, officials in the Parliament and the Commission warn that she is no push-over. Those who have worked with her in negotiations with other EU institutions have described her as her party’s “hired assassin” or “pit-bull”.
Cleaning up mismanagement at the EU level was, says Grässle, what impelled her to stand as an MEP. She already had a long track record – she has been a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since she was 14, and, she says, “I come from a political home”. Her father, however, was a trade unionist and her decision to join the centre-right was, Grässle admits, “ a sort of protest”. In 1990, she became a team leader in public relations in the CDU headquarters in Bonn. In 1996, she ran and won a seat for the party in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament, a post she held until she was elected to the European Parliament.
She dates her desire to attain political office to the time when she was a journalist on the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. Intensive work as a court reporter gave her, she says, first-hand insight into the problems arising from mismanagement, corruption and fraud. “What I saw was that asking questions is the most important attitude for a journalist, but also for politicians. So I am used to asking questions,” she recalls.
1961: Born, Heidenheim
1980-84: Reporter and editor, Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung
1984-89: Masters in languages, history and political science, University of Stuttgart and Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris
1990: Public relations executive for the Christian Democratic Union
1991-94: Doctorate in philosophy, Freie Universität Berlin
1995-96: Spokeswoman for the city of Rüsselsheim
1996-2004: Member of the Baden- Württemberg parliament
2004-: Member of the European Parliament
2007-: Chief whip for German EPP delegation in the Parliament and EPP co-ordinator on the budgetary control committee
Pursuing her noble goals has not always made her popular – with other institutions, with other MEPs, and even with her own party. Her energetic – and sometimes aggressive and stubborn – attempts to clean up mismanagement and improve accountability have antagonised many. Grässle’s blunt and direct approach may be appreciated by reform-minded MEPs, but can be a hard sell in an atmosphere where consensus is considered king. “Quite often she overshoots the mark, she wins the battle but loses the war,” says one party colleague. Another describes her as a “strong member” within the EPP group, but says that once she makes up her mind “it is difficult to change”.
In March this year, Grässle was at the centre of an ill-tempered spat over the spending of the Parliament’s 2008 budget. Bart Staes, another reform-minded MEP, drafted a report critical of how money had been spent and of a lack of accountability. Grässle pushed through amendments that eliminated Staes’s criticism. He then accused her of colluding with the Parliament’s secretariat and said that the two biggest political groups did not want to “hang out the Parliament’s dirty laundry”. Grässle vigorously rejects the allegation and claims instead that Staes was trying to create an inaccurate image of a corrupt Parliament.
Grässle was just as forthright in her criticism of the accord hammered out over the European External Action Service (EEAS) in July, which pitted her against Elmar Brok, a fellow German centre-right MEP. She tried but failed to prevent rapid approval, arguing that the Parliament was throwing away its ability to improve transparency in the staffing and financing rules for the new diplomatic service.
She won back some of the ground in October, when she drafted the Parliament’s position on how to take account of the EEAS in the EU’s financial rules, winning concessions on oversight and audit from member states and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. Commission officials recognise that she is an adept negotiator, which led to a quick compromise on changing the financial rules. Similarly, although many in the Parliament believe that she has not got it right every time, they credit her quick thinking and astute political sense for keeping European commissioners and member states on their toes.
A grin also spread across her face in early October when she pushed through an amendment to the Parliament’s position on the EU’s 2011 budget, freezing a chunk of European commissioners’ salaries and allowances unless changes are made to tighten up their code of conduct. She proposed the amendment after it emerged that some former commissioners are still receiving transitional allowances from the Commission, despite having found other work.
Grässle says what is important now is to ensure that MEPs exercise their full powers under the Lisbon treaty to hold all EU institutions accountable. “What I hope to achieve is to bring some order,” she says. She is aware her style and her push for more transparency provoke strong reactions. But for her, what she is doing “is quite normal for me, being a politician”.
“For everybody hoping that I will go back to Germany, no way; I am staying. I love it here,” she says. “There is still some work ahead.”