In June this year I went with a friend to a party congress to support his bid to get on the list for European Elections next year. This weekend he is going back alone to argue why he should not be removed from the list due to the fact that he has failed to disclose to the party that he is currently under investigation by the European Parliament for allegations of sexual harassment.
I don’t know if the party will remove him from the list, but I sincerely hope so. No party benefits from having their campaign derailed by allegations of sexual harassment against one of their top candidates. That is why I saw it as my duty to inform the party the moment I found out.
But lets start from the beginning.
I first got to know Niles (this is not his true name, but let’s use it. Somehow it fits him). Around the time of the 2014 European elections. He was a hopeful activist of his party, clinging to the coattails of their top candidate, a close friend of mine, in hopes that it would lift him up to a high place on their list for that election. It didn’t. But he nonetheless helped to promote their number one candidate, and once she got elected he applied for the job as head of office for her Brussels office. I was advising her on her staff recruitment, and while Niles was never our top pick for the position he got offered the job when the person we wanted to fill the position turned it down.
Privately me and Niles got along quite well, and while we didn’t socialize outside of work on a regular basis we met up every now and then and invited each other for birthday parties and the like. In short we became friends. At work we interacted more frequently. I frequently attended meetings with their office and, having worked in the same capacity for a different MEP during the last mandate, I regularly gave Niles advice on how to perform his duties. Every now and then I noticed tensions between Niles and other staff members, and it seemed he had an habit of underestimate the work of female colleagues. At some point he had to be sent to management training to better be able to actually perform his role as line manager for his colleagues. But from what I could see from the outside he was trying to perform his duties to the best of his capacity.
When it came to women in his personal life it was a different story. He started multiple short lived relationships with people working in the same political group in the European parliament that we both are affiliated with. He failed to start even more (but not for lack of trying). Quite a few female friends of mine described him as sleazy, a few of them going so far as to avoiding being alone with him due to his unwelcome attention. Over time he stopped being invited to parties, and his womanizing behavior became a bit of a running joke among the people knowing him. We were wrong to find it funny.
When the MEP that Niles worked for announced that she would not run again for the 2019 European elections I asked Niles if he had any plans of running. While I didn’t see him as the kind of candidate that one would want to top a list to win votes I found it important that someone from the office would run as to tie the outstanding successes of the current MEP to the election campaign of the party. Niles was the only one who had strong ties to the party and a will to run, so he seemed the obvious choice. Or perhaps, more accurately, the only choice.
So I went with him to the party congress where the list was elected. His MEP did the same. My guess is that her support for him had a huge impact of him climbing to near the very top of the list at that meeting. Mine was more of a gesture of support towards a colleague I, for all his flaws, still liked. Sure, there was some warning signs. Like the fact that he, over drinks one evening at the general assembly complained that tinder nowadays was filled only of people looking for relationships, and that they should leave the app so it would be easier for him to find casual hookups. I wrote it off as poor judgement and bad taste and returned back to Brussels happy with the outcome of the meeting that had placed Niles near the very top of the list. And with a top candidate that I considered highly qualified to both run a successful election campaign and to fill the role of MEP with integrity. Niles, I assumed, would both be able to retain his job as head of office after the elections, bridging the shift from one elected MEP to the next, and be an asset for the party during the campaign.
Jump forward just one month and this had all changed.
My first reaction when I found out that there had been two formal complaints against Niles of sexual harassment and that his MEP had handed in a request to have his contract terminated due to a breakdown of trust was to say that I wasn’t surprised. In hindsight everything seems so obvious. I felt foolish for not having picked up on the signs a lot sooner. But I had liked Niles, and it is easy to dismiss signs of ill behavior when it is about someone you genuinely like. Not wanting to act on second hand information I spoke with as many people involved as I could find. The one person I didn’t speak with was Niles. He was no longer in the office, and I couldn’t stomach to go out of my way to find him to hear his side of the story. And I didn’t have to. The trail of evidence was obvious when one knew where to look.
One of the two persons who had handed in a complaint had worked as an intern in their office, and Niles unwanted attention had followed her pretty much from day one. Constantly contacting her and asking for social interaction outside of working hours and going out of his way to make sure that she ended up being alone with him in the office. For respect of everyone involved I will spare the details. But in short it was a prolonged and constant unwanted attention, and highly unprofessional given the fact that he was her superior at work. I think everyone can understand how uncomfortable it must have been for her to try to stave him off while at the same time knowing that he, as her direct superior, had all the power to ruin her career that she had spent years working towards.
Asking around I found multiple accounts of similar stories involving women working in other offices. With the main difference that they all had had a better chance of avoiding his unwanted attention by taking precaution to not have to interact with him. I see it as collective failure that so many people, myself included, had this happen in the corner of our eyes without giving notice. That we had enabled him to behave the way he did by our inaction.
To me it was entirely obvious that someone with so little respect for women, and with such poor judgment of behavior as Niles has showed could be nothing but a liability for an election campaign. And that it would be gross negligence to allow him any chance to come into a position where he could pursue similar behavior towards other women unchecked. Of course, the decision to minimize that risk by removing him from the ballot would never be up to me, but to the party in question. I checked to see if the MEP had informed the party about what was going on, but as Niles had made accusations of slander against her to derail the process of being fired (to this day the parliament has still failed to rule whether his behavior constitutes the kind of breach of trust that warrants the MEP to terminate his contract) she was very tight mouthed about anything related to his termination. And there seemed to be a general resignation about the fact that he was on the list. People commented that since he was not the top candidate it was unlikely that he would actually get elected, so we should just hope that he wouldn’t. I concluded that it was unlikely that anyone had informed the party and reached out to their top candidate.
To no surprise Niles had not owed up to the situation and informed his party that his job in the parliament and his link to their MEP, the two things that had propelled him to the upper part of the ballot, was both being currently flushed down the toilet. Any decent person would have contacted their party on day one to explain the situation and starting a conversation on what would be the best course of action for the party. Niles did not. For all I know, had I not intervened the party would to this day still be oblivious of what kind of person they had on their list.
Over the course of the following months I advised their top candidate on possible ways to get Niles of the list. Our hope was to convince him that it would be best for both him and the party if he withdrew from the list to avoid causing a scandal for the party. Rumors of the alleged sexual harassment where spreading fast in our group in the parliament, and there were already journalists who seemed to be digging for the story. That this story would break sooner or later was pretty obvious for anyone who knew what to look for.
Niles instead decided to fight back. He employed the same tactic towards the party as he had towards
the European parliament administration tasked with deciding on his termination. Denying that any of his actions had been constituted harassment and stalling as much as he could. Asking for time to consider their suggestion that he should withdraw his name while instead using the time to try striking back at me by sending a letter to my employers accusing me of blackmail and urging them to take action. That is not a viable strategy if one wants to influence my actions. I tend to act based on what I think is right, not what I think will be most beneficial for me.
And what is right in this instance is to make sure that the party can make a fully informed decision on whether they really want to keep someone who, at any time between now and the elections might be found guilty of sexual harassment. And who has, as far as possible, tried to hide this fact from the party who he is a candidate for. To me the facts are obvious:
Any party trusting Niles to put the interest of the party over his own interest is gravely mistaken.
Any party who willfully keeps a candidate on their list with the full knowledge that he is under investigation for sexual harassment is unlikely to gain the trust of the public to represent them in the European Parliament. And rightfully so.
I don’t know what the party will do with the information I have given them. At the end of the day it is up to their members to decide. But I feel proud to have given them the choice.
The Weekend came and went without the issue being addressed at the party congress. Apparently it was withheld from the agenda by the meeting chairs for procedural reasons. But at least the party leadership has now said that they will look into the matter more thoroughly, so hopefully there will still be time for them to act on it.