Changing political constellations in the European Parliament: Turbulent times ahead.
Political Groupings are essential to the running of Parliament.
The incoming 736 members drawn from 27 Member States and an array of national political parties will need to form themselves into political groupings of at least 25 members drawn from seven Member States. Accommodating such a variety of political beliefs requires certain flexibility in the dogmas and policies adopted to facilitate membership in the political groupings. The titles of the groupings, often awkward, reflect this wish to gather as many members as possible into a particular fold. The debate within the Socialist grouping illustrates the sensitivity surrounding the choice of name. Whatever the origins of each, groups as such are the basic unit around which parliament is organised and between which majorities are negotiated. There was a general understanding in the previous parliament that the center right and center left formed a “grand coalition” whose support was required if major legislative proposals were to be adopted. The Services Directive, a very controversial proposal would not have passed were it not for agreement between the two largest parties.
In assessing the efficiency with which the 2004-2009 mandate was executed, according to a study from the European Policy Center, much of the credit for the Parliament’s legislative performance is given to the European political groups and the organisation of the committee system. Earlier fears of new divisions, for example of a geographical nature (North/South/East or East/West divides), did not materialise in terms of decision-making – instead, the 2004-09 assembly has continued to develop its profile as a party political negotiating forum. The political groups have, in this way, continued to act as platforms that provide guidance to individual MEPs on how to position themselves both in general debates and on specific policy issues. Similarly to many national parliamentary systems, the political groups work under a ‘division-of-labour’ system, where individual MEPs can use the instructions from the group’s leadership as a ‘translating tool’ on policy proposals (assuming they agree with the core, underlying values behind the party line).
Commitment to the European project is becoming a distinguishing feature supplementing the traditional left/right divide.
The outgoing Parliament had organised itself into seven political groupings bringing together politicians according to where they found themselves on the right/left axis. But there was a tension arising from an underlying commitment to the European project. The title of the center right party “The European Peoples Party and European Democrats“ reflected the unease the British conservatives experienced being in an alliance with more pro-European allies than they were comfortable with. Indeed this tension has led to the formation of a new political grouping “European Conservatives and Reformists“ consisting of 55 MEPs from 8 countries including the British Conservatives, the Polish Law and Justice Party, the Czech Civic Democratic Party, and single members from several Member States.
The left is also forming new alliances. The socialist grouping in the European Parliament has established a new group containing the Italian Democratic Party. The group has changed its name from the European Socialist Party to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in Europe in order to facilitate the incorporation of the 21 Italian MEPs. Indeed there continues to be controversy regarding the title! The bad election results for the left are weakening the Group’s morale. In the United Kingdom, Labour slipped from 19 to 12 MEPs, while Portugal and Spain dropped from 12 to 7 and from 24 to 21 respectively. The disastrous score by the French Socialists brought them from their top position in the group to fourth, with 14 members compared to 31 in the previous legislature. Germany’s SPD held its 23 seats.
The Liberals will hold their third ranking but the previous “Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe“ is also changing its membership with three Fianna Fail members joining them from the “Union for Europe of the Nations group (UEN). However some Italian MEPs from the “Legga Nord” are also moving on from the UEN to the new eurosceptic group “The Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group” and it is likely that the UEN as such will disappear. It will be a close run race for fourth place between the Greens (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance) and the new European Conservative and Reformist group.
The Greens had a good election increasing their representation from 43 to 53 seats. The far left gathered in the “Confederal Group of the United Left – the Nordic Green Left have remained stable in numbers but with a change in presidency from the Frenchman Francis Wurtz to Lothar Bisky of the German Die Linke party.
The final distribution of newly elected MEPs between the different groups will fluctuate at least until the plenary session on the 14thJuly. Ranking of the Groups matters as this will influence the distribution of functions under the d’Hondt system of allocating Vice-Presidencies, Chairmanships and logistical and financial support.
Old faces dominate the leaderships.
Both the EPP and the new socialists grouping have re-elected their outgoing leaders. Joseph Daul (France), has been the EPP group leader since 2007. The Socialists have reconfirmed Martin Schulz (Germany) as their Chair and the Greens renamed Daniel Cohn-Bendit (France-Germany). Former Green co-Chair Monica Frassoni (Italy) was not re-elected in June and will be replaced by Rebecca Harms (Germany). An important newcomer is former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, elected leader of the Liberals.
The EUOBSERVER reports, “a mosaic of right-wing euro-sceptics and hard-right anti-immigrant parties have cobbled together enough MEPs to form a new political group out of the ashes of the Independence-Democracy group in the European Parliament”. They will be known as “The Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group”. Farage, the co-leader is tempted to become involved in the Lisbon campaign: “We will do our damndest in the second referendum to make sure that the people of Ireland understand that these so-called ‘guarantees’ that they were given at the recent European summit, frankly are not worth the paper that they were written on.”
Looking to the future.
There are significant changes in the political landscape. While the center right (EPP) is the largest party it will need some partners to assure a sustainable majority over the life of the mandate. The Socialists morale has been shaken by the poor election results particularly in France. The French internal confusion is likely to infect the cohesion of the European Grouping. Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberals will play an important role in the formation of a majority. He will negotiate to seek further European integration. In contrast there are the two new euro-sceptic groups who will challenge this trend. The big question is whether the European Conservatives and Reformists Party can distance itself from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group co-chaired by Farage of UKIP. The Lisbon Treaty divides the British Conservatives from their traditional right ally, the EPP.
In the immediate future two votes will oblige the new grouping to adopt defining positions. These are the election of the President of the Parliament and the second and more controversial is the timing and candidate for election as Commission President. On the former one may expect a “technical agreement” between the EPP and the Socialists to share the Presidency between them. On the Commission Presidency it is too early to say how this will play out. It may be that there will be no immediate consensus in the Parliament and that we will have to await the outcome of the Irish referendum before such a vote will be taken. We may look forward to turbulent times!