The imminent departure of British MEPs brings further changes to the balance of power in the European Parliament, only a few months after the EP landscape was redrawn by the elections held in May 2019. This generates further confusion at a time when stakeholders are already struggling to engage with an apparently more unpredictable cohort of policymakers. However, the EP’s (and EU’s) decisions are not as unpredictable as commonly thought. If you scrap below the surface of anecdotal evidence, you can find a wealth of information on the evolving policy preferences of decision-makers and thus predict what comes next and where you need to engage.
This is easier said than done, as the daily routine and the avalanche of information coming from a variety of (sometimes questionable) sources prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees. This is where our team’s work, consisting in the analysis of the actual voting records of politicians, comes into play by isolating the noise and providing an accurate and objective macro picture (as well as many micro pictures).
In order to be successful in defending their agenda, public and private stakeholders need to understand both the macro and the micro pictures, i.e. to predict the general trends, but also to know who will be on their side and who will make the difference. Politics in the European Parliament is, above all, a game of big numbers, especially now that the fragmentation has increased and the cohesion of the political groups is decreasing. The groups’ leaders, the coordinators and the rapporteurs remain the visible and leading figures, but their room of maneuver is increasingly limited by the dynamics of formation of majorities both inside their own parties and the EP as a whole. For example, if you want to understand the limitations of the rapporteurs and how much (and in which direction) they can shape the laws, then you have to factor in the direction and the power of the pushes and pulls that come from their colleagues and other external influencers (because that’s what the rapporteurs themselves do as well).
This report will answer questions such as:
– What happens to the cohesion of the political families? Which ones are suffering from the pressure of the fringes?
– Which national delegations are calling the shots within their own groups? Which ones are the most isolated?
– Which parties are voting alongside other groups more than their own?
– How are coalitions built on specific topics and who wins?
– How will Brexit affect the composition of the EP? Who will gain (or lose) the most?
In the first section of the report, we provide our findings with regards to the internal cohesion of political groups, their performance in the Parliament and the coalitions that are being built.
Here, we will also provide examples of how coalitions are being built on different policy areas and key pieces of legislation.
Afterwards, we will zoom in and look into the balance of power within each political groups: which national groups are calling the shots, which topics lead to disagreements among fellow group’s colleagues and which national parties disagree with their own groups to such an extent that they might be considering joining other forces in the future. This will allow you to further understand how to engage and find allies among these political forces.
Need more specific analysis? Feel free to send your inquiries to VoteWatch Europe. We provide tailored research, presentations or training on MEPs’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas. If interested, send us an email ([email protected]) or give us a call (+32 2 318 11 88).
Overall trends: balance of power shifting towards the left on environment and home affairs, but centre-right still dominates on trade and foreign policy
That the new cohort of MEPs is going to be more unwieldy than the previous one was clear from the outset of the new Parliamentary term. In fact, the difficult election process of the new Commission featured a tit-for-tat combat between the main political groups (EPP, S&D and Renew Europe), which led to the rejection of three Commissioners, as well as the narrow approval of President von der Leyen in the first place. Given the premises, stakeholders are holding out for more, wondering whether the main political groups will manage to effectively cooperate when voting on the legislative proposals that the Commission is putting forward. VoteWatch Europe can provide some preliminary answers to such questions. Our measurements indicate that cooperation between the three main political groups is holding up, as efforts are clearly being made to find compromises between their different positions. However, this is not always the case, in particular as the pressure from the fringes is on the rise, making any sort of compromise more politically costly for the parts involved.
Preliminary trends also indicate that the Greens/EFA group is increasingly part of majority building in the Parliament, showing that the overall balance of power in the European Parliament is shifting towards the left, as the right-wing fringes become more isolated. This clearly points towards a stronger support among MEPs for a progressive agenda which involves further regulation of the economy compared to the past, when there was a stronger focus on de-regulation as a way to achieve economic growth (as exemplified by the ‘Better regulation’ program, one of the key initiatives of the Juncker Commission). Even when the Greens are not necessarily needed to form a majority from a numerical point of view, their support contributes to build bigger majorities and therefore strengthen the hand of MEPs in the negotiations with the other legislative institutions, in particular the Council. However, it is important to keep in mind that majorities are formed on a case-by-case basis, meaning that there are significant differences across policy areas.
The strengthening role of the Greens is clearly observed on topics related to environmental regulation. In this regard, a pivotal role is played by the Renew Europe group, whose degree of agreement with the Greens on such issues is on the rise. While during the previous term, Renew Europe’s predecessor ALDE was closer to ECR on environmental topics than to the Greens, Renew Europe currently clearly leans more towards the green side of the political spectrum. The rising influence of the French delegation within Renew Europe (the most left-leaning one in the group) clearly plays a role, even though this is not the only factor.
This trend is further exemplified by the fact that left-leaning groups are more often on the winning side than the EPP with regards to regulatory issues concerning GMOs, pesticides and chemicals, where the group led by Manfred Weber is often outvoted. This is likely to generate headaches for the Commission, as the new cohort of MEPs already managed to pass several objections to its regulatory decisions, while the EU executive has also to find a balance with the softer views of national governments on the application of the precautionary principle. Furthermore, these trends indicate that this centre-left coalition is likely to raise the level of ambition (such as the targets) of the Green New Deal proposals that the Commission is set to put forward, likely putting them on a collision course with the Council, where conservative forces tend to be stronger (although potential gains of the Greens and other left-wing forces at the national level, as seen in Austria and Spain, could contribute reducing the political differences between the two institutions).
The rising influence of the Greens and far left is not only visible on matters concerning the environment, but also in other policy areas, such as civil liberties and home affairs and even, perhaps more surprisingly, economic affairs. In particular, initial trends show that the current balance of power in the EP is favorable towards the European Commission’s push to increase the EU role on taxation policy, as it can count on the support of a broad centre-left coalition of MEPs (which also includes most of the EPP). These political forces are expected to increase the pressure on the most reticent national governments to lift their reservations on EU tax harmonization proposals (as in the highly disputed CCCTB and digital taxation).
However, on other policy areas, centre-right coalitions arrangements tend to be more common, such as international trade, where the differences between the free-trade orientation of the centre-to-the-right forces are hard to reconcile with the protectionist attitude of left-wing forces, but also on foreign policy, where a centre-right majority is often able to overcome the skepticism of the far-left, greens and some of the socialists with regards to EU defence and the special partnership with NATO.
Importantly, initial trends show that centre-right wing forces are often on the winning side when voting on budgetary issues, with ECR playing a more central role in supporting the re-shaping of EU financial capacity than in the past. This was made possible by the gradual transformation of the ECR group from a British-dominated ‘small-government’ eurocritical force to a Polish-dominated social-conservative bastion. Since Central and Eastern European countries are among the biggest beneficiaries of the EU budgetary spending, the changed composition of ECR makes it a more likely ally for the political forces at the centre of the political spectrum, including S&D which currently agrees more with ECR on budgetary matters than with the Greens/EFA group.
While there is somewhat broad consensus among MEPs about the fact that the EU budget should be increased (only ID opposes this, from among the political groups), the key question is how the budget should be allocated. The stronger cooperation between the conservative forces is likely to dampen the ambitions by the Greens and the left for a full ‘greening’ of the budget, as the stronger influence of CEE MEPs within EPP, ECR, Renew and S&D will ensure that the traditional items of expenditure are not penalized by the push towards a more ‘climate-oriented’ budget. Also, ECR’s soft views on projects related to the EU defence union will help the main political forces (EPP, Renew Europe and S&D) to overcome the joint opposition of the left, the greens, a substantial part of S&D and the right-wing nationalists to the burgeoning EU defence programs.
While inter-groups dynamics are important to follow, as they provide stakeholders with potential scenarios for coalition-buildings on different topics, let’s not forget that transnational European groups often struggle to keep their internal cohesion when facing such challenging policy decisions. At a time where nationalist forces are on the rise, the temptation to think in national terms is stronger than ever, further complicating the job of the groups’ leaders to keep the groups together. Nevertheless, our measurements show that the picture is quite mixed, as the internal cohesion of some political groups seems to be holding up quite well, as in the case of the fringe forces whose internal cohesion is perhaps benefiting from the polarization of the political debate. However, the political families that occupy the centre-to-the-right part of the political spectrum, namely the EPP and ECR, are suffering the most to keep their MEPs in line. This is not surprising, as these forces tend to feel more the pressure coming from the nationalist right, while also facing the pressure to be pragmatic and find compromises with the centrist groups in the European Parliament.
It is important to keep in mind that the internal cohesion of political groups varies across different policy areas. For instance, while S&D and the Greens/EFA are more internally united than the EPP when voting on issues concerning migration, they tend to be more divided than the EPP when voting on issues concerning international trade. This also affects coalitions building dynamics when voting on legislation and even the negotiations process among political groups. Stakeholders need to be aware of whether the cohesion of a group is likely to hold or not when voting on a certain topic, as this should guide their decision-making with regards to whom they should talk to: in some cases it might be better to focus on the leaders of the political groups, whereas in other cases it is safer to reach out to individual national parties or even individual MEPs. The following sections dedicated to each political group will provide more detailed information on which specific topics tend to spark divisions within the political groups, as well as on which topics there is broader consensus among fellow MEPs.
While these are the trends from the initial six months of the new European Parliament, we expect further changes in the future months, especially due to the imminent departure of British MEPs. In fact, Brexit is set to affect the balance of power between the political groups, throwing a lifeline to the ailing EPP, whose lead on S&D is set to increase substantially following the departure of the British. Gains are also expected for right-wing ID group, which will overtake the Greens/EFA as the fourth largest group in the EP. However, while ID as a group is set to become stronger, the departure of the big Brexit Party delegation will clearly weaken the nationalist opposition to the Commission headed by von der Leyen, shifting the balance of power in favour of the more moderate forces. The current Commission was supported by only 52% of British MEPs (while the level of support in the plenary as a whole was 65%).
The groups on the centre-left-wing side of the political spectrum will miss the British the most, as their size will shrink significantly after Brexit. The Greens/EFA and Renew Europe groups will lose about 10% of their current seats, while S&D losses will be proportionally more limited, albeit still significant. From a policy-making perspective, the main impact of Brexit will strengthen the hand of the EPP in the negotiations with its main coalition partners, possibly compensating the current left-ward shift in the balance of power in the EP. However, it is also important to consider that Brexit will impact on the geographical balance in the EP, as nearly half of the new seats will go to French, Italian and Spanish policymakers, therefore boosting the presence of the ‘South’ in Brussels. This also has legislative implications, as these three national groups tend to share similar policy preferences (such as an overall protectionist and interventionist economic orientation).
The internal balance of powers within the political groups will change as well, in particular in those groups where the British delegation is quite large, as in the case of Renew Europe, where the British are the second largest national group. The following sections will dig into the inner power dynamics within each of the EP political groups, with a particular focus on the most powerful national parties, as well as those that are more isolated. In this regard, we see an increasing trend of national parties that vote more alongside other national groups than their own, which indicates that there could be further changes in the affiliations of some political forces over the next few months.
EPP set to enjoy Brexit ‘dividend’, while internal divisions are becoming harder to quell
The EPP is set to be the main beneficiary from the changes following the departure of British MEPs, as the group will not lose any MEPs (it does not have any British), while it will gain five additional seats. This will strengthen the EPP’s hand in the negotiation with its main competitors, as well as partners, Renew Europe and S&D. With its position as the largest European group further strengthened, the EPP’s remaining challenge is to reverse the current negative trend of decreasing internal cohesion of the group.
In fact, even though EPP’s lower numbers after the elections should theoretically make it easier to keep the group together, the contrary is actually happening, as the internal cohesion of the EPP has decreased substantially compared to the previous legislative term. During the initial 6 months of the new term, the internal cohesion of the EPP was lower than the one of Renew Europe for the first time in many years. This is important, not only because the EPP is a key component (in fact, the biggest one) of the current majority supporting the von der Leyen’s Commission, but also because it shows that the EPP is struggling to stay united while facing increasing pressure coming from the right-wing nationalist fringes. Since such pressure is intensifying, EPP’s room to compromise with the more progressive forces becomes more limited.
The embattled EPP is rallying behind its most influential members (i.e. the members that are on the majority side the most within the group), namely the German CDU/CSU, Romanian National Liberal Party and Polish Civic Platform. Interestingly, Germany and Romania are also the biggest countries currently governed by the EPP. Conversely, despite their opposition role in Warsaw, the election of Tusk as the President of the EPP confirms the rising influence of the Polish within the EPP and the increasing weight of Central and Eastern Europeans within this political family.
However, some of the group’s headaches are coming from the same region, as the MEPs from one of its largest members, Orban’s Fidesz, are increasingly diverging from the EPP’s positions. During the current term, the Hungarian party voted more alongside ECR than its own EPP, showing that the rumors of an imminent divorce should be taken rather seriously. On some sensitive societal issues, such as migration, gender and education, Fidesz votes more often alongside Salvini’s and Le Pen’s ID group than the EPP. More generally speaking, the EPP is struggling to remain united on these issues, as its members are yet to reconcile their disagreements on how to deal with the rise of the far-right, on the one hand, and the more socially-liberal centrists on the other hand. While these debates might not have immediate legislative implications, persistent divergences on such sensitive matters are likely to affect the working relationships on other policy areas as well.
So far it seems that the more right-wing members are struggling to get the upper hand, as the French Republicans, one of Orban’s few remaining allies in the group, are also taking distance from the EPP’s line. However, while the harder French stance on migration, family and other identity issues is the main source of disagreement with their EPP colleagues, divergences are also observed on budget and international trade, where the French lean more towards the left. For instance, the French side with the left in supporting an increase in EU funding for social programs, agricultural funds and cohesion policy, while it also supports a harsher stance with regards to banning imports of meat treated with antimicrobial products. Here, we can clearly see the influence of the rise of Le Pen’s National Rally in the French political scene, which has led the centre-right party to harden its views on migration issues, but also to focus more on its ‘social’ credentials. The growing isolation of the French is quite important, since LR’s predecessor UMP used to be one of the largest parties within the EPP (even though the fragmentation of the French always prevented them from challenging CDU), which also led a member of the party, Joseph Daul, to become the leader of the EPP. However, LR’s worsening electoral performance has diminished their importance within the group, therefore limiting their capacity to act as a counterbalance to the overwhelming German influence in the group.
This also means that the EPP political forces that support softening the EPP position on budgetary discipline and free-market policies will have a harder time. This is the case of Belgian Wallonian EPP members, whose positions on economic issue is rather different than the EPP’s one. This is not a new development, as, already during the previous term, the Wallonians were more aligned with Renew Europe and S&D than their own group. This trend is confirmed for the new Parliamentary term as well, as they sided with the left on several occasions, such as when advocating for funding increases for social programs such as the European Social Fund and the introduction of a new EU financial instrument to tackle long-term unemployment.
However, despite a few dissident voices, the EPP’s unity is holding well with regards to economic issues such as budget, international trade and foreign policy. This is quite important since, as shown in the next section, S&D tends to be more divided on these very topics, meaning that the EPP is more likely to play the leading role in brokering the agreements in these areas (the centre-right group is more often in majority on budget and foreign policy compared to S&D, despite S&D winning more votes overall).
Spanish influence within S&D is on the rise, as Southern MEPs work to take over the group after Brexit
Once a mighty force, the weight of the Social Democratic family has been steadily decreasing over time. However, the initial trends from the new Parliamentary term indicate that the influence of the Social Democrats is holding up, due to their relatively high cohesion (they are the second most united group after the Greens/EFA, which are about half their size) and the strengthening of S&D’s relations with their most immediate partners, namely the Greens and the Renew Europe group. Our measurements show that S&D is cooperating more with the Greens and the centrists during the current legislative term compared to the previous one.
However, while the group’s internal cohesion is also steady, at least when compared to the EPP’s internal struggle, there is a strong variation by policy area. In this regard, the picture in S&D is rather the opposite than in EPP, as the centre-left group is more united on issues concerning migration, rule of law and cultural issues, but tends to be more divided on budget, foreign policy and international trade.
In light of the new Commission’s bid to be a ‘geopolitical’ one, such disagreements among fellow Social-Democrats on key policies related to the EU external dimension raise concerns about S&D’s potential contribution to the establishment of a more coherent EU foreign policy. For example, S&D finds it difficult to find a common position when it comes to relations with Latin America, in particular with regards to Venezuela and Bolivia, but also in case of EU-Russian relations. Previous measurements also showed that S&D group tends to split down the middle when more disputed trade agreements with third countries are being decided in the European Parliament. After the latest elections, the more protectionist side, which was led by the Francophone MEPs from Belgium and France has lost ground due to the electoral misfortunes of the French Parti Socialiste. Nevertheless, these are likely to remain the most vocal representative of protectionist forces in the group, as they are at the forefront of the opposition to the recent deal to increase U.S. beef exports to Europe.
This heterogeneity of views and national groups represented within S&D raises the question of whom is actually calling the shots within the group. Our measurements show that S&D majorities are currently formed around the two Iberian parties, the Spanish and the Portuguese, which benefit from both their relatively big size, but also from their stronger position at home, when compared to the other big national groups in the Social Democratic families, namely the Italians and the Germans.
Interestingly, the comparison between the performance of the three biggest Social Democratic parties shows that holding the leadership of the group positively affects the level of influence of a national delegation. Differently from the EPP and Renew Europe, there is no single S&D party whose size is significantly bigger than the others, which increases the importance of the formal leadership of the group. The Italians used to have the highest degree of alignment with the S&D political group when Gianni Pittella from the Democratic Party was the leader of the group between 2016 and 2018. This was the pinnacle of Italian influence in the group, also due to the fact that PD was leading the government in Rome. After Pittella’s replacement with German Udo Bullman, German SPD managed to catch up with the bigger Italian delegation in terms of rallying the majority behind them, whereas the Spanish overtook the Italians and the Germans after winning the leadership of the group in 2019.
These parties are expected to benefit the most from the upcoming changes in the composition of the EP, as the departure of British Labour MEPs will deprive the more dissident members (in particular, those from CEE) of a key counterweight to the increasing power of the Southern delegations. Central and Eastern Europe is actually the region that provokes the biggest headache for the leadership of the group. Since 2016, the Bulgarian delegation started to diverge from its European group because of growing tensions back home (unsatisfactory election results and a long spell of being in the opposition) and between national and S&D leaders. Foreign policy is among the main points of contention, as the Bulgarians are more critical of EU transatlantic ties and support a more conciliatory approach towards some of the US’ foes, such as Russia and Venezuela.
However, differently from dissident members from other political families, there is no clear membership alternative for those who disagree with the S&D’s political direction. For instance, the Bulgarians lean more towards the left on budgetary issues (for instance they support more funding for agriculture and to counter demographic decline) but when it comes to environmental and climate policy they lean more towards to the center-right (they disagree with excluding the funding of activities that are not climate-friendly from the next MFF).
Interestingly, while under Renzi’s leadership the Italian Democratic Party was one of the most centrist members of S&D, even leading to rumors of the party’s imminent move to Macron’s group, the party’s positions seem to have actually shifted towards the left under the new party leadership. For example, the Italians are among the few S&D members who agree more with the Greens than with the Renew Europe group (in particular on budgetary and foreign policy matters).
Renew Europe: French still short of dominating the group – but after Brexit their influence will skyrocket
On the one hand, the 2019 elections boosted the size of the centrist political family, further consolidating its role as the main kingmaker in the European Parliament. In fact, neither the left-wing forces, nor the right-wing ones, nor a grand coalition made up of EPP+S&D can count on a majority on their own, which often implies that they need Renew Europe to be on board to pass proposals through the Parliament. This is confirmed by our latest data, which shows that the Renew Europe group has been on the winning side the most often from among the political groups over the first 6 months of the current EP term.
On the other hand, there are concerns about the increasing heterogeneity of the group, in particular with regards to the disagreements between the traditional Northern (Hanseatic) members and the French newcomers over the political direction of a group that already suffered from lower cohesion in the past (when compared to the other moderate political forces in the European Parliament). However, so far the group has been quite effective in smoothing out potential disagreements, as its internal cohesion has remained comparable with that from the previous term, in spite of the bigger group’s size. However, this is not to say the group is highly united on each topic (and RE’s cohesion remains significantly lower compared to that S&D and the Greens). For example, disagreements are noticeable on key regulatory issues, such as the authorization of chemicals and imports of genetically-modified products, in which the French and some of their Central-Eastern European allies are generally pitted against the traditional ‘Hanseatic’ members.
Quite interestingly, when divisions within the group arise, the French tend to be more on the losing than the winning end, at least when compared to the British Liberal Democrats and the other liberal parties from the ‘Hanseatic’ cultural area (Flanders, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Baltics). This is rather interesting, as fiscally conservative parties from the group of countries known as the ‘New Hanseatic League’ are at the forefront of the opposition to several of Macron’s proposals, in particular on the Eurozone, but also topics such as bigger EU spending and tax harmonization.
So far, the smaller parties from Northern Europe managed to contain the rising French influence also thanks to the positive electoral performance of the British Liberal Democrats, the British ending up as the second largest party in RE. Since the French have been the farthest away from the Liberal Democrats in terms of voting behavior within Renew Europe, they will be the main beneficiaries of the upcoming changes to the internal balance of power. Conversely, the parties that tend to agree with the British the most, such as the two Swedish parties, followed by other Nordic and Baltic parties, are set to lose the most out of the British departure.
The departure of the British will further cement the French grip on the centrist group, also because Macron’s delegation will gain 2 additional MEPs from the redistribution of seats after Brexit. Perhaps paradoxically, the Spanish Ciudadanos, which is losing influence at home after the latest disastrous electoral results, would end up as the second largest party within the group – with 7 MEPs. Our data shows that Ciudadanos is currently rather central in the internal dynamics of RE (the Spanish are very frequently on the winning side within Renew Europe). However, due to their relatively small size – combined with the trouble at home -, Ciudadanos is unlikely to be able to contain the French-driven push of the group farther to the left. Then, we can expect a further acceleration of the current trend, to the detriment of the more right-leaning members. In fact, Macron’s MEPs are the most left-leaning within REG – a clear indication of that being that they agreed with S&D 89% of times.
Let’s compare this with the policy preferences of one of the largest and most successful parties within Renew Europe, Czech ANO 2011. Not only are the Czech positions far from those of S&D (they agreed with S&D only 66% of times), but Babis’ delegation also voted more in line with the EPP than with its own Renew Europe group. While the party has become increasingly at odds with their European partners even before the EU elections, the recent changes in the group seemed to have further widened the rift. ANO 2011 holds more right-wing views on several issues, such as the environment (ANO opposes increasing the 2030 climate targets to 55% greenhouse gases reduction) and migration (ANO wants to do more to reduce the flows of economic migrants into the EU).
Greens/EFA remain the most united group, but Brexit will take a toll on its level of influence in the EP
While the size of the Greens/EFA group increased substantially after the past elections, the group managed to remain the most cohesive one in the European Parliament. Such high level of cohesion has an impact on the effectiveness of the group as a whole in rallying support for its policy agenda. In this regard, our measurements show that the influence of the group is on the rise, as the Greens/EFA is on the winning side of the votes substantially more often than during the previous term. This is not only due to its increased size (as it is still small compared to the main political groups), but rather to an increasing degree of cooperation with the other centrist political groups, most notably signaling a rapprochement between the Greens and the middle-ground (Renew Europe and the EPP) on several environmental and regulatory matters.
Conversely, the Greens remain distant from the other political groups on topics such as international trade, where the Greens tend to side more with the protectionist forces to both the very left (GUE/NGL) and right (IDG) of the political spectrum. However, this is also the policy area in which the group is less cohesive, showing some lingering tension between those who are more willing to cooperate with the free-trade oriented groups and those who are more critical of such opening. This was the case of the EU extending its trade agreement on poultry with Ukraine: this is staunchly opposed by the French, the British and the Austrians, while the Germans and the Nordics are less critical of the EU proposal.
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Despite the recent improvements, the group is set to be among the main losers due the departure of British MEPs. Greens/EFA is expected to lose 7 seats (almost 10% of its current size). This is likely to weaken the negotiating position of the Greens, in particular as this political family is still weakly represented, despite the recent changes, in the other legislative institution, i.e. the Council of Ministers. The risk for the group is that Greens’ proposals will be left out from the final compromise agreements between the co-legislators.
While the Italian 5 Star Movement (which is currently looking for a group and applied to join the Greens/EFA) could help the group to further increase its size and expand its outreach (the Greens are currently weakly represented in Southern Europe, which remains the main stronghold of the other progressive forces, S&D and GUE/NGL), the talks between the two forces met several hurdles. This clearly displays some hesitation on the Green side, as such a union could have an impact on the cohesion and balance of power within the group (the Italians would become the second largest delegation, potentially acting as a counterweight to the strong German influence in the group). Our measurements show that the views of the Italian 5 Star MEPs align the most with the Greens in comparison with other political groups (they agree with each other 70% of times). In particular, the alignment is high on matters concerning taxation and the environment. However, the 5 Star are closer to the political centre when it comes to issues such as migration policy. Notably, the other progressive forces blamed the Italians for contributing to the rejection of a resolution advocating for a stronger facilitation of Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean (the resolution was rejected by only 2 votes).
The genetic mutation of ECR: from ‘small-government’ group to socially conservative stronghold
The case of ECR clearly shows how the departure of the British substantially impact EP politics. Although the European Conservatives and Reformists group was founded by the British Conservative Party, British MEPs’ influence is now all but missing from the Parliamentary group (the British agreed with their group only 59.60% during the current legislative term). The Conservatives’ loss of influence within their European group started with the 2016 Brexit vote and culminated with their disastrous 2019 EP election results, which led the party to only get 4 seats, less than newcomer Brothers of Italy. This development was hugely beneficial to the Polish Law and Justice, which influenced the political direction of the group to such an extent that it can be described as a ‘genetic mutation’.
Due to the dominance of PiS, ECR is becoming more conservative on climate, migration and gender, but more supportive of the Western Balkan enlargement and of a bigger EU budget, as it mirrors CEE preferences. For example, a majority of MEPs from the conservative group favor the ambitious proposal to increase the size of the next MFF to 1.3 % of GNI, as well as the increase of EU funding for agricultural and rural development, with the internal opposition generally coming from the Swedish and the Dutch on these issues. However, ECR’s socially-conservative turn puts it on a collision course with centre-left groups in the EP (which do not miss any opportunity to table reports that are critical of the Polish government) and also driving a wedge with the EPP, where the influence of the Polish opposition is currently on the rise.
The conservative group’s parting from the ‘small-government’ Euro-criticism that characterized it in its beginning led to gradual isolation of its Northern ‘Hanseatic’ wing (this might have contributed – among other things – to the decision of its Danish and Finnish members to leave the group). A particular case in point is the New Flemish Alliance, who have been traditionally close to the British (when there are conflicts between the British and the other members, they usually side with the British). The less moderate members from ‘Hanseatic’ countries are also diverging from ECR: Dutch Forum for Democracy and Sweden Democrats have actually agreed more with Salvini’s ID group than their own ECR group during the current legislative term. This conflict can be seen clearest on budgetary issues, where the Dutch and Swedish parties disagree with the Polish on increasing the funding of regional cohesion policy, therefore siding with the Identity and Democracy group.
Therefore, the departure of British MEPs will lead to a further consolidation of the position of the Polish, but it is also set to benefit the growing Southern branch of the group (Vox and Brothers of Italy). This is quite interesting, as the representation of Southern Europe within ECR has always been rather limited. Over time, the sustained growth of these two new members (which are currently performing very well at the national level) might decrease the reliance of the group on the Visegrad members and contribute to expand its geographical – and geopolitical – outreach.
ID group more economically right-wing than its predecessor, but no improvements in terms of influence
Similar to ECR, the newly-rebranded Identity and Democracy group is undergoing a genetic mutation of its own, caused by changes in its internal balance of power. In fact, while its component members see eye-to-eye on matters concerning migration and civil liberties, their views diverge on several regulatory and economic matters. The positions of its three main national parties are best described as a spectrum: the French and German parties at the extremes (the French being more supportive of economic interventionism and protectionism, whereas the Germans are more free-market oriented), while Italian Lega occupies a more intermediate position. The group’s ideological divergences can be seen in their stances on EU spending (such as when the French showed their support for the establishment of a European Rail Transport Fund, against the political line of the other national groups) and regulatory matters (when the French and Italians sided with the left-wing groups in opposing re-authorization of active substances such as flumioxazine).
The previous numerical dominance of the French National Front explains why the precursor of the group (ENF) tended to be closer, in terms of voting behavior, to the far-left of the EP. However, now that the French share the leadership of the group with the German AfD and, especially, Italian Lega, the ID group is seen as agreeing more with ECR and, to a lesser extent, the EPP than in the past. This is the case of foreign policy, where the group’s views on NATO and transatlantic cooperation have become softer, due to the lower weight of the French, who are rather skeptical of close military relations with the US.
However, the distance between the EPP and the ID group remains significant, as the two forces agree with each other only 40% of the time. For instance, ID and EPP groups have different positions on EU tax harmonization, EU supervision of the rule of law and the size of the EU budget. This indicates that the rumors of Lega joining EPP in the future might be premature, although a potential future electoral victory of the party in Italy will pose the question of whether Salvini’s party should aim to join a more central group.
In fact, although the ID group is set to overtake the Greens/EFA as the fourth largest group in the European Parliament after British MEPs depart, our measurements show that its bigger numbers are not translating into stronger influence in the EP. This group is most often on the minority side, as the centrist forces refuse to cooperate with it and formed a cordon sanitaire to prevent it from getting any leadership positions in the Parliament. Additionally, its lack of cohesion still makes it difficult for the group to speak as one on many issues. Besides the above-mentioned disagreements on economic issues, the far-right group is not fully united on issues related to the climate. Quite strikingly, its Danish member votes similarly with their group on environment protection only 19% of the time, even siding with Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL in supporting the mainstreaming of climate change mitigation in the EU budget.
However, while the cohesion of the group remains the lowest among political groups, it is on the rise compared to its predecessor from the previous term, possibly showing that the nationalists are gradually finding a common ground despite their different national priorities.
GUE/NGL more united than in the past, but disagreements on budget and social policy still difficult to reconcile
Despite having only one MEP elected in the UK, the GUE/NGL is not set to benefit from the redistribution of seats after the departure of British MEPs, as the leftist group will remain the smallest one in the European Parliament. However, such smaller numbers seem to be helping the internal cohesion of the GUE/NGL, which is up compared to the previous term, even though it is still significantly lower than the ones of Greens/EFA and S&D.
In fact, despite its small size, the group is sufficiently diverse for policy disagreements to arise. While views tend to be rather homogenous on topics related to environment and migration, it is on core economic topics such as employment, international trade and budget where divisions usually arise. For instance, the group is divided geographically with regards to the proposal of a European unemployment reinsurance scheme, with the Southern members (the Spanish, Greek and French) favoring the initiative, while the Germans, alongside the rest of the group, oppose it. While the group aims to represent the working classes in their countries, the different economic situations across Europe lead to divergences on the best course of action: in this case the leftists from countries with low unemployment are hesitant to support initiatives that only imply costs for their taxpayers to the benefit of the unemployed in other countries.
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The situation is further complicated by the fact that, differently from most other groups, GUE/NGL does not have a clear dominating force as the Germans, Greeks, French and Spanish, the group’s largest national delegations, are equal in number. This explains the rather long process to select the new leadership of the group, which ultimately led to a Franco-German cohabitation. However, our measurements show that most majorities are being made around the Germans’ political line, which remain the most influential within the group, despite the rising influence of its Southern European members. After the recent developments in Spain, we expect the role of Spanish Podemos to become more important, in particular when it comes to building stronger ties with the other progressive groups.
Interestingly, while the group is quite united in promoting progressive values, their only CEE member, namely the Czech Communists, is the one that disagrees the most with positions of the group, in particular on climate policies and civil liberties, therefore mirroring similar cleavages in other groups (such as Renew Europe, where the Czechs are diverging from their group for similar reasons). The Czech Communists have only agreed with their group 67% of the time. For example, they are less supportive of the crackdown on rule of law violations in EU members, opposing the current threats of activating Article 7 against the Maltese Labour government. The Czechs also oppose the EU goal of full decarbonization by 2050. This is quite significant, as these disagreements (alongside history) contribute to explain the limited outreach and appeal of the far leftist family in the key CEE region.
EP Leadership: Dacian Ciolos’ less aligned with his political group (Renew Europe) compared to EPP and S&D leaders
In case of conflicts, most MEPs side with their national parties rather than their European groups. It is quite easy to understand why. MEPs need the support of their national parties in order to get re-elected to the European Parliament, since they are the ones deciding which candidates are on the electoral lists for EU elections. Also, MEPs need to maintain friendly relations with their national colleagues in order to increase their chances of landing more prestigious positions after their stint in the European Parliament. However, while political groups have less to offer to individual MEPs, everyone knows that compromises are necessary in order to pass legislation in Brussels.
That’s why the leadership of the political groups is important, as its effectiveness indicates whether a group will stay cohesive on voting on the most disputed proposals, when compromises with the other political groups have to be ‘sold’ to the most skeptical members. This also explains why the chairs of the political groups are expected to abide by their transnational role and lead the way in following the common line of their European groups even when their national delegations are not happy with the outcome, so that other MEPs would feel pressured to do the same.
This is the case of the EPP, where Manfred Weber has the highest degree of alignment with his political group. While this says a lot about the influence of the German delegation, it is important to note that Weber more often votes in line with the EPP group than with his own CSU (as it was the case during the previous term). Similarly, the newly elected leader of PSOE, Iratxe Garcia, also more frequently votes in line with the S&D group than with her own PSOE. As in the case of Weber, Garcia benefits from the fact that her national party is the biggest one within S&D, which makes her job of finding a compromise between her national and European allegiances much easier.
However, when it comes to Renew Europe’s leader Dacian Ciolos, we found that the Romanian politician tends to side with his national colleagues against his European group when there are disagreements between the two. This is a clear break with the previous leadership of Guy Verhofstadt, who was voting more in line with the European group that he was leading rather than his own national party, being the most aligned with the ALDE group during the previous term. This is perhaps a potential indicator of a lower propensity of Ciolos in investing resources in brokering compromises within the group. However, there are other possible explanations, such as the fact that Ciolos is a newcomer in the European Parliament and therefore less accustomed to EP dynamics compared to Weber, Garcia or Verhofstadt. Or it might just be that this is the result of Ciolos being closer to the French than the British MEPs, which would explain the temporary divergences between Ciolos and the group that he is leading (the British are more often on the winning side than the French within Renew Europe).
Our measurements on the leadership of other groups indicate that the degree of alignment of groups’ chairs with their own factions decreases the more you move towards the fringes. Even more interestingly, chairs of right-wing groups such as Marco Zanni (ID group) and Ryszard Legutko (ECR group), have a lower alignment with the groups they are chairing compared to other MEPs from their own national parties (Lega and PiS, respectively). While there are several reasons that explain such findings (e.g. their close relations with the party leadership at home), this clearly contributes to the lower level of cohesion of these political groups.
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