MEPs’ views are shaped primarily by their political families and their nationality (not always in this order). However, in the case of more technical subjects, other key factors influence politicians’ mindset: their own professional and educational background. We have gone through the CVs of all MEPs who took their seat in the new Parliament and this report reveals some of our findings.
As insiders know, the educational and professional background of decision-makers plays a key role in the way they perceive political trade-offs and the weight they attribute to different arguments (e.g. legal vs ethical; privacy vs. security; precautionary vs. risk-tolerant; cultural homogeneity vs. diversity, etc.). These backgrounds also affect the level of attention that a person gives to different approaches, for example statistical vs. anecdotal evidence.
What professions are dominant?
An impressive one third of MEPs have academic experience as professors, researchers or lecturers (in some of the cases, this is combined with other practical background). We also found that around 15% of MEPs have background as lawyers and some 12% as journalists. Interestingly, only 11% of the MEPs have background as entrepreneurs, although (lack of) economic growth has been high on the agenda in recent years. Fewer MEPs can talk about their experiences as engineers, doctors and economists. There are also a few politicians with military background and a couple of priests (interestingly enough, one of them being elected on the list of a social-democratic party). Lastly, there seem to be just a few (genuine) farmers among the new EU law-makers, although the biggest share of the EU budget (still) goes to supporting agriculture.
Education-wise, the new European Parliament is mainly composed of MEPs with a background in humanities and social sciences (around 40%), while the remaining portion is equally divided between Parliamentarians with a background in economics, legal affairs and hard sciences.
About 13% of MEPs have no previous political experience
Our research shows that about 13% of MEPs do not have significant previous political experience (defined as political activities at the political echelons of public bodies or within national parties). We can expect some of these MEPs to stay more in line with the positions of the leadership of their parties than their senior colleagues, until they themselves build their own “political individuality”. On the other hand, we can expect that in some of the cases their own educational and professional backgrounds to carry a bigger weight in the way they look at things, as they are not yet used to making regular political horse trading.
Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘newbie’ MEPs are concentrated within the political families that have seen big increases in their size after the recent elections: Renew Europe has the highest share of MEPs with no previous political experience, followed by the new right-wing group Identity and Democracy. Newbies can be found among the members of Macron’s La Republique en Marche, Salvini’s Lega as well as in the (always) special case of Farage’s Brexit Party (a majority of Brexit Party MEPs have little to no political experience).
This trend is due to the fact that growing groups and parties have more room to welcome outsiders, whereas the high number of incumbents within the more established groups limits the opportunities for political newbies. Shrinking groups such as ECR, EPP and S&D have the lowest shares of MEPs with no political experience.
Right-wing groups have more entrepreneurs and lawyers than left-wing groups
Certain professional backgrounds are more commonly found among certain political groups. Entrepreneurs and lawyers are more common among right-wing groups (the same goes for the smaller category “military background”). The share of these categories of MEPs is two to three times higher within the EPP, ID and the Brexit party compared to the left-wing groups. To a lesser extent, economists are also more numerous among right-wing groups.
For example, the strongest presence of lawyers can be observed among the ranks of the Spanish Partido Popular and those of Italian Lega. On the other hand, there are very few lawyers within GUE/NGL and the Greens/EFA groups. MEPs with a legal background are particularly common in the big Latin countries, Spain, Italy and France, whereas they are less common in other relatively big countries like Poland, the UK or Romania.
These MEPs are clearly more sensitive to legal arguments and are more strongly aware of the actual impact of legal phrasing: the more ambiguous legislation is, the bigger the room for interpretation by those implementing it – public administration, courts, etc. For these reasons, they are particularly able to figure out what rules are set to remain on paper only and which ones are going to have a bigger impact in practice. They can also be expected to give extra attention to every word in an amendment. Somewhat on the opposite end of political activists (which focus on the political objectives), MEPs with law background tend to pay more attention to the legal means and processes.
Entrepreneurs are spread across the centre-right and right-wing political groups and they are rarely found among the ranks of S&D and GUE/NGL groups. However, the Greens/EFA and Renew Europe do have among their ranks a reasonable number of them. The UK has the highest share of entrepreneurs from among the biggest countries, whereas this kind of MEPs are less commonly found among the main CEE delegations, such as Poland and Romania.
Entrepreneurs are more sensitive to economic arguments and tend to value market efficiency. They have less tolerance for waste of money and energy, as they have learned to optimize different types of resources during their career. Generally, they tend to value pragmatism (what works in practice) more than idealism. Entrepreneurs are also by definition risk-takers (ie. they have a higher tolerance to risk) which explains why there are a higher number of them among some of the forces that are aggressively challenging what they perceive as being “EU overregulation”. Notably, entrepreneurs have also been on the giving end of taxes and on the recipient end of a substantial part of EU regulation, reason for which they have much higher awareness of the (initially invisible) costs of the most (apparently) innocuous rules.
Similarly, MEPs with an economic educational background tend to be more strongly represented on the right-wing part of the political spectrum, whereas the lowest percentage is observed in the GUE/NGL group, while the Greens/EFA group also seems to have a shortage of members with economic background. Geographically, Southern Europe has the highest concentration of MEPs with an economic educational background, contrary to Central-Northern Europe. Similarly to entrepreneurs, pragmatic and economic arguments are likely to be more effective with economists. Importantly, however, economic knowledge can assume different forms: while entrepreneurs have more concrete, but sectorial knowledge, economists tend to focus on the bigger pictures and the interplay between social and economic phenomena. This also explains why MEPs with economic background in general are more strongly represented within the centre-left forces than entrepreneurs.
Left-wing groups have more engineers, natural scientists, social scientists than right-wing groups
Conversely, MEPs that have an educational background in technology and hard sciences or have professional experience as engineers are generally concentrated among the left, centre-left and centrist political groups. In this case, the Greens/EFA can count on a high share of hard scientists and technicians (more than 30% of their own Members), most of them coming from Western Europe. Renew Europe group and left-wing GUE/NGL also have a proportionally high number of this kind of MEPs. Conversely, the lowest percentage of technicians, natural and social scientists is recorded within the Identity and Democracy group, but also among the Socialist and Democrats.
MEPs with this profile tend to have a more long-term attitude than other social groups. Technicians and hard scientists tend to be more wary of traditions (e.g. cultural identity) and established institutions. They are also keener on hearing scientific arguments in particular when it comes to their area of specialization. Lastly, they are also more likely (than entrepreneurs or lawyers, for example) to have been benefited from state subsidies or public contracts, hence (all other things being equal) we can expect them to be more favorable to bigger public budget and regulation.
Geographically, this professional category is mostly present among the EU law-makers coming from Central and Eastern European countries, where Romania shows one of the highest concentration of engineers. Interestingly, the CEE engineers and technicians are also strong in numbers among the European Commission staff, according to the preliminary findings of a separate study that VoteWatch is conducting. Conversely, Central-Northern countries, such as Germany, have sent a lower number of engineers in the European Parliament.
Perhaps not surprisingly, MEPs with an education background in social sciences and humanities are particularly concentrated within the left-wing groups. The strongest representation of MEPs with humanities and social sciences background is observed within the GUE/NGL group, followed by S&D and the Greens/EFA group. Interestingly, however, these categories of MEPs are also strongly represented within the right-wing group of ECR, while under-represented within the EPP and barely represented in the nationalist, newly-formed Identity and Democracy group. The finding concerning the ECR is due to the biggest delegation in this group, the Polish Law and Justice, which includes a majority of MEPs with a degree in social sciences or humanities. However, Central and Northern European countries hold (proportionally) a higher number of MEPs with an educational background in social sciences and humanities than what we can observer among the MEPs coming from Southern Europe.
By definition, MEPs with this background tend to focus on the ‘impact on society as a whole’ of policies (as opposed to individual economic freedom). However, there are some differences between the social scientists and artists. Political scientists tend to have a more systemic view of social processes, ie. institutional outcomes and the balance of powers in society are quite relevant in their thinking.
Our research reveals that there are not many policy-makers with a background in arts, literature and humanities. The explanation can be that political environments are perceived as too rough and cynical to be either welcoming or appealing enough for artistic souls. However, we can expect that those few that do come from the artistic sector to be more supportive of arguments that relate to values and impact on human emotions (which are arguably an important part of political communication).
Not surprisingly, activists and NGO members are mostly found on the left: almost half of Greens/EFA members have such a background, as well as over a third of GUE/NGL, whereas their share is less than 10% in the EPP and ID groups. This category mainly comes from Western Europe, the delegations of MEPs from countries such as France, Ireland, UK and Luxembourg have a high concentration of activists and NGO members, contrary to what we observe among the delegations coming from Italy, Portugal, Greece and, more broadly, in Southern Europe. Activists are less keen on hearing cold-hearted legal, institutional or technical arguments. Strict economic considerations also tend to play a secondary role in their hierarchy of priorities. These MEPs are also more likely to focus on the perceived outcome (the impact of policies on their communities, nature, or society as a whole) than the process (how decisions are made).
MEPs with background in academia, research institutes are more evenly distributed
However, other categories of professional background in the European Parliament are more evenly distributed across right and left-wing political groups. This is the case of researchers and academics, as they come mainly from the centre-left and centre-right political groups. Indeed, the Greens/EFA group has the highest proportion of professors and researchers, followed by ECR and the EPP. The representation of researchers and academia is lowest among fringe groups, such as right-wing ID and left-wing GUE/NGL. MEPs with academia background are more commonly found among Central and Eastern European delegations, such as Poland, Romania, but also among the Germans.
For academics, social prestige and recognition are highly important. We can expect them to have a comparatively lower tolerance to risk, hence a preference for evolution rather than revolution in policies. This also explains why they seem to stay clear from joining the least moderate groups on either side of the spectrum.
In order to understand how a EU law-maker sees things and makes decisions for us, one has to take into account the combination of political affinity, nationality, professional and educational background and possibly other factors. For more information and support feel free to contact us at [email protected].
Methodological note: the data was collected and classified by our team members, who followed common guidelines on how the data should be classified (what should be considered as ‘political experience’, what should be considered as ‘social sciences’ and so on). However, there might be some divergences in the way different teams/people classify the information, meaning that there might be a margin of variation between different classifications, due to different human interpretation. The data is also affected by the lack of available public information on a few members of the European Parliament. However, the above methodological issues are unlikely to affect the broader trends highlighted in the report.