Party trumps country for MEPs

Financial Times

HIGHLIGHT – Study shows switch in voting patterns: national interest loses prominence. Members of the European parliament are far more likely to vote along party lines than they were 20 years ago, a study by VoteWatch, an independent online organisation dedicated to European Union transparency, has found.

It is common for candidates in European elections to campaign on a platform of defending their country’s interests in Brussels but the VoteWatch analysis suggests party allegiance regularly trumps national ties. During the most recent parliament, members of the three biggest political groupings – the centre-right European People’s, the European Socialists and the Liberals – voted with their party more than 86 per cent of the time, according to the study for the Financial Times.

Two decades ago, party cohesion in the largest groups occurred only 50-60 per cent of the time. MEPs from different parties in the last parliament voted in national blocs less than 10 per cent of the time, with the least “national” MEPs hailing from Germany and the UK. The most cohesive was the Green party, whose members voted together 90 per cent of the time.

“It certainly shows that representatives from all over Europe are coming together on common platforms rather than getting into parliament and having conflicts based on geography,” said Sara Hagemann, an analyst at the European Policy Centre and VoteWatch founder.“A British Labour MEP is much more likely to vote with a German Social Democrat than a British Conservative,” said Simon Hix, her collaborator from the London School of Economics.

A case in point came in December, when British Labour MEPs defied their government and voted to reject national opt-outs to the EU-wide 48-hour maximum working week. Richard Corbett, a Labour MEP, said the study’s findings helped to counter a misconception perpetuated by the media that EU politics amounted to relentless rounds of gladiatorial combat between member states. “It’s logical,” he said. “The choices we face are policy choices, not national choices. ‘Do you want more environmental regulation at higher cost to industry?’ There will be people on both sides of that argument in every country.”

“There’s been a change in the 15 years I’ve been here,” said Graham Watson, head of the parliament’s Liberal group, harking back to days when MEPs were more inclined to take orders from their capitals. In 2001, for example, the takeover directive that would have forced companies to win the approval of shareholders before resisting a hostile takeover was rejected almost entirely because German MEPs followed Berlin’s line.

Mr Watson said the parliament’s political orientation had developed as a consequence of its increased legislative powers. “It’s forced us to be more coherent as we’ve taken more important decisions,” he said.

Yet the rise in party cohesion might not be due entirely to benign factors. A significant driver of the trend, said Ms Hagemann, is an increase in top-down party discipline, in which MEPs follow voting instructions from party leaders. That discipline has allowed the parliament to absorb MEPs from new member states and still -process more than 1,000 -legislative proposals in five years – far more than most national parliaments.

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