The European Parliament is a funny old place. Armed with ever increasing legislative powers, as MEPs giddy with the as-yet unexplored possibilities of the Lisbon Treaty tell us with admirable regularity, it is nevertheless a legislature without a single demos, elected on a low average voter turnout and where a stifling sense of consensus reigns.
This leads to odd politics. The traditional power-sharing stitch up between the main right and left parties on the presidency of their institution being a case in point. The grand coalition of right, left and liberal MEPs that lies behind most decisions is another. The absence of a sense of real political effect for your vote is a third.
The three main parties argue that their coalition politics makes them stronger when it comes to positioning the parliament as whole during legislative negotiations with member states. The flipside is that they remove the ‘politics’ from the EU’s only directly elected institution and make it a rather snooze-inducing complexity for ordinary citizens for whom the traditional for and against / left and right is removed or at the very least obscured.
Consider this: the right dominated in the June European elections. There was much speculation at the time about whether the right – would then dominate policy-making. Between them the EPP (265 members), the liberals (84) and European Conservatives and Reformists (54) have the majority in the 736-member parliament. If you throw in the eurosceptic Freedom and Democracy group, which has something of the untouchable about them as far as most other MEPs are concerned (at least publicly), then it is clearly a right-wing parliament.
But a recent report on the voting behaviour of the first six months of the European Parliament by the excellent VoteWatch.EU, shows this is not (yet) the case. The EPP has lost a higher percentage of votes between July and December 2009 than in the last legislature. The main beneficiary has been the Liberal group (the third sized grouping behind the Socialists) which thoroughly enjoys its king-maker status in the EU assembly. It has seen an increased percentage of ‘win’ votes.
But still probably only to a certain extent because of the nature of checks and balances in the parliament, and the I’ll scratch your back nature of EP politics. According to Professor Simon Hix, a political scientist from the London School of Economics, the only way to ensure some change would be to alter the way of allocating committee chairs and rapporteurships, highly influential posts in the parliament. Currently distributed proportionally, he suggests allocating more such posts to the political group that won the most votes in the election. An interesting idea.
Additionally, he and and his colleague Sara Hagemann – both are behind the VoteWatch project – note the continued cohesiveness within the political groupings, even if the ideological net has been cast pretty widely. (The centre-right EPP group contains the free-trade oriented Nordics and the more protectionist French while the Liberal group regularly weeps into its cups over the socially conservative views of its Irish members.). Click here to see the article.