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European Parliament: Guide to the political groups
Political groups of the European Parliament
The European Parliament’s transnational party groups are surprisingly cohesive, but don’t underestimate the potential for national divisions
Transnational party groupings in the European Parliament
Better known than the transnational federations are the party blocs which have developed in the European Parliament and which in many cases share the same name as the bodies already described. Their activities have a specific focus – the assembly itself – and they can and do play an important role in its organization and operations. These party groupings at Strasbourg are then a part of the wider transnational parties, but because they have a more definite role they are much more significant.
Party at both levels.
The organisation of the European Parliament emphasises its supranational leanings. Members do not sit or associate as national groups but as members of a variety of political groupings based on an approximation of ideological similarity.
The largest of these groupings provide mutual assistance at election time, creating propaganda and campaigning material based on an agreed manifesto.
None of the main federations and few of the other groups has the cohesiveness or discipline of national political parties, but there is a feeling of common interest.
The groups have more influence than individuals or small national groupings would have and they receive financial support from the Parliament for administrative and research purposes, dependent on their size. They are a recognized feature of the workings of the assembly, and they influence the drafting of the agenda and the allocation of committee chairmanships, speaking rights, and other duties and facilities.
Party groups and the 2004-2009 Parliament
According to the EP rules of procedure adopted in 1999, a group must have a membership drawn from more than one member state. It requires a minimum of twenty-three MEPs if the members come from just two states, eighteen if they come from three, and fourteen if they come from four or more. There are usually between seven and ten groups, but their names are liable to change from Parliament to Parliament as members regroup to take account of the latest election results.
The latest regrouping has involved the creation of a far-right but ideologically loose entity, known as Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty. It has been described as ‘anti-immigration, anti-EU Constitution and anti-Turkish membership’. The largest component of the group is the French National Front, but it has a membership drawn from seven countries. Previous attempts at creating such a body had been thwarted by the requirement that groups had to be of a certain minimum size and drawn from 20 per cent of the member states. Enlargement has made it easier to surmount such an obstacle. Indeed, the use of proportional representation across the Union means that several diverse traditions in the national life of countries can secure some representation. Nugent calculates that there have never been less than sixty different national parties represented in the European Parliament. The number has increased in recent years.
In the 1999–2004 Parliament there were 122; in the 2004-2009 Parliament, there were 175.
Reflecting the major expansion of the Union to include ten politically and economically diverse states, the composition of the sixth parliament is considerably more heterogeneous than in the past.
Two major groupings or party federations dominate the European Parliament, those of the centre left and the centre right. Voting is therefore dependent on the way in which their members and the third centrist party react.
On many issues they have traditionally formed a strongly pro-integrationist ‘grand coalition’, and in the discussion of many policies and initiatives, this remains the case today.
Advantages and difficulties of party groupings
The organisational stress on supranational rather than national interests has helped to create a sense of European identity in the Parliament. Many members do recognise a responsibility to examine issues on the basis of what is good for Europe rather than purely on the basis of what is good for their own country.
After all, they share a broad similarity of outlook, and because of these common values, they have a distinctive way of approaching European issues. Within any such grouping, there are inevitably difficulties in bringing about a united approach. These can be reflected in the voting patterns of MEPs, although often members show unity in division.
Party cohesion in the European Parliament
Many studies have been conducted concerning how MEPs vote within the European Parliament, but the research by Hix et al. has been notably thorough and wide-ranging. In a major study of the 12,000 or so divisions held over the first five parliaments to 2004, their main conclusions were that over the twenty-five years:
1. MEPs became increasingly influenced by party rather than national loyalties.
2. Parties became more cohesive in their voting.
3. Left–right divisions increased, with the broad integrationist coalition of the EPP and PES losing some of its impacts.
4. The EP was becoming more like national parliaments, more and more dominated by political parties and left–right politics.
Enlargement has had a significant impact on composition, for the representation of member states, the number of MEPs and the number of national parties represented have all increased. Moreover, in economic interests, social values, cultures and institutions, the ten new members are markedly different from the membership that existed until May 2005. Hix has taken his study further, updating the work by making preliminary judgments about voting based on some 1,300 votes in the first eighteen months of the sixth parliament. His findings were that:
1. Voting behaviour is little different than in previous parliaments, with most MEPs still voting mainly along transnational lines.
2. The cohesion of groups has been little affected, remaining high.
3. Voting on national lines has remained low.
4. Left–right divisions still predominate when members vote. The main exception to this pattern is the behaviour of ALDE. Whereas the ELDP voted approximately the same number of times with the PES as with the EPP between 2004 and 2009, ALDE has voted more with the EPP in the present parliament, perhaps a reflection of the more rightish leanings of several of its new member parties brought about by some defections from the EPP.
Sometimes, particularly within the two larger groupings, there are differences of doctrinal interpretation. Within the EPP–ED, there is some divergence over the commitment to integration, the Christian Democrats being markedly more sympathetic than the British Conservatives. In other cases, members who share the same broad political principles may nevertheless find themselves much affected by considerations of national self-interest – for instance, within the PES, French socialists tend to differ from many British Labour MEPs over the issue of reform of the CAP.
Such divisions inevitably mean that policy on key issues is sometimes fudged, and statements are often little more than vague platitudes. In particular, differences over the pace of European integration and methods of tackling racism on the continent tend to bring about less predictable alliances. This can be true of other policy areas, as well. It is not uncommon for members of one bloc to share an affinity of outlook on key issues with members of another. Often the matters discussed do not easily fit into an ideological left–right battle between the supporters of Christian Democracy and those of Social Democracy.
Internal division can be influenced by factors other than ideology or national interest. MEPs are much lobbied by various pressure groups representing differing interests in Europe. They often belong to Intergroups which cross the boundaries of the different groupings and espouse diverse causes. Finally, they often lack money and resources.
The case of the European People’s Party
The EPP is both a transnational political party and a political group in the European Parliament.
A transnational party
The EPP organisation is a transnational party, a confederation of Christian Democrat and other centre-right parties from member states. Founded in 1976 in time to prepare for the first direct elections to the EP, it aims to promote closer liaison between the Christian Democratic parties of the Union.
The EPP operates at the governmental and parliamentary levels. Heads of government whose parties belong to the EPP organisation meet prior to summit gatherings. Members of the European Commission with mainstream centre-right leanings have regular weekly meetings.
In recent years, membership has been widened beyond the CD movement.
The accession of new members has brought non-CD parties into the fold, and it is now a much broader umbrella than was once the case. Neither the British Conservative Party nor its MEPs are members of the EPP organisation; nor have they applied to join.
A political group of the European Parliament
MEPs from national parties belonging to the EPP organisation automatically sit in the EP as members of the Group of the European People’s Party. The EPP contingent contains some MEPs who do not actually belong to the EPP, but who are affiliated with it.
Full members accept the EPP organization's political platform and programmes.
Allied members do not. They accept the ‘basic policies’ of the Parliamentary grouping, not necessarily those of the wider EPP party organization
Relationship of British parties to transnational organisations
The three main political parties in Britain each belong to, are affiliated with or have links to the appropriate transnational confederations.
UK Conservatives and the sole Ulster Unionist MEP are not members of the EPP.
They have been loosely associated with it, in the sense that their leader is invited regularly by the EPP president to the EPP summit meetings of heads of government and leaders of the opposition that precede gatherings of the European Council. All previous leaders have attended, but not as yet David Cameron.
Members of the Conservative Party have not wanted membership or close ties, for they find the strongly pro-federal approach of the party hard to accept. After the June 1999 elections, there were weeks of negotiations before the Conservatives announced that they would only join the EPP on the basis of a deal which had been arranged whereby it would drop all federalist references from its constitution, replacing the word ‘federalism’ with the words ‘decentralisation and subsidiarity’ wherever it appears. The EPP also added the name of the European Democratic group to its own. Until 1992 this had been a group of almost exclusively British Conservative MEPs, together with two anti-Europe Danish MEPs. It was only after the departure of Mrs Thatcher in 1990 that the Conservatives felt able to link up with the EPP, finally affiliating in May 1992.
As ‘allied’ or ‘aligned’ members of the EPP–ED group, the Conservatives are an important part of the EPP, the third largest component. They have had many advantages deriving from membership of a wider centre-right body, but are not bound by its policy statements. The Conservatives are more right-wing than many who belong to or are associated with, the EPP. It was considered on both sides that there were sufficient similar values and ideas between them for the British to be at least partially integrated into the group.
There are still deep reservations in the minds of many British Conservatives over the merits of membership.
Labour belongs to the Party of European Socialists, its MEPs sitting with the bloc in the European Parliament. The Labour chair has a seat on the Presidency, the highest body of the PES. Labour MPs and ministers regularly participate in PES working groups and party officials regularly meet with the coordination team to discuss the planning, preparation and follow-through of PES activities.
The Liberal Democrats are members of the ELDR and sit in the ALDE group in the European Parliament. A Lib Dem MEP acts as the leader of the parliamentary body