Citizens will be able to track the voting records of their MEPs ahead of next month’s EU elections following the launch yesterday (11 May) of a new website making such details easily accessible to the public. The VoteWatch.eu project – which seeks to boost the transparency of EU decision-making and improve the quality of debate – collates publicly available attendance, voting and activity data on MEPs on a single, searchable portal.
The project “provides detailed information about parliamentarians’ voting records and formal political activities – from committee work to parliamentary reports – and includes easy-to-access information on the political coalitions that are formed around policy issues,” reads a statement on the website. “We’re not campaign-oriented, party-political, or receiving any money from the EU institutions or government organisations,” explained project leader Sara Hagemann of the European Policy Centre (EPC), a Brussels-based think-tank. “All the info is publicly available, but it’s difficult to find. We’ve collated it all,” she said.
Users can look up MEPs’ individual voting records or access voting data according to nationality or political group affiliation. The search tool allows users to identify whether an MEP voted with or against his or her government or political group’s line on a particular issue. “Cohesion scores” displayed alongside the results allow for comparisons with members’ previous votes on similar issues or alignment with the party line, allowing users to track how the positions of their MEP or a political group have evolved over the years.
“There are shifting coalitions in the European Parliament, just like the shifting coalitions in the US Congress,” said Simon Hix of the London School of Economics, another of the site’s developers.
‘No naming and shaming’
Hix was quick to stress that the information on VoteWatch.eu is purely objective. “This is not a naming-and-shaming site, and I think it’ll be difficult to use the site for this. It is not subject to any editorial manipulation. It means people can now use the information that the Parliament is providing. Before, this was not the case.”
One drawback of the website is that it can only track roll-call votes, and not electronic or show-of-hands ones. “But all the most important votes, and all those that involve lobbying, are roll-call,” Hix said. Indeed, Guillaume McLaughlin, a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) secretariat, said “the European Parliament has decided that all final votes will be roll-call votes anyway,” adding that “political groups will probably use [the site] to see what their members are doing”.
Site ‘must not hide’ EU institutions’ failings
But EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros warned that the initiative must not be allowed to hide the European Parliament’s own communication troubles, and especially not those of the Council. “Citizens will not be satisfied until all legislative deliberation is made public,” said Diamandouros, expressing his belief that with the upcoming Swedish EU Presidency committed to improving transparency, the issue is “likely to acquire even more importance in the years to come”.
Council set for similar scrutiny
The project’s initiators even suggested that a similar system could be applied to the EU’s Council of Ministers, which represents the Union’s 27 member states. “Scrutiny of the Council’s activities by national parliaments is not straightforward. Plenty of data is available, but its quality is limited,” said the EPC’s Hagemann. “Voting records are blacked out, and don’t say which countries were for or against,” she said, before announcing that VoteWatch.eu will be expanded late this year or early next to include information on governments’ decision records in the Council of Ministers. “Over the next half year, we’ll look into presenting [the Council data] in a similar way. But it will have to be done differently, and we’ll need the [Council] secretariat’s cooperation,” Hagemann said.
VoteWatch.eu was developed by political scientists from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Free University of Brussels (ULB). Those involved include Sara Hagemann of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank, LSE professor Simon Hix, Doru Frantescu of the Qvorum Institute in Bucharest and Adbul G. Noury, associate professor of economics at ULB. VoteWatch.eu is described as a “not-for-profit organisation” supported by the Open Society Institute, an NGO, Burson Marsteller, a consultancy, and Electionmall.com.
In November 2008, a panel of election strategists told MEPs that the power of the Internet could be harnessed to “reinvigorate and rejuvenate” EU politics and boost turnout in June’s elections to the European Parliament (EurActiv 19/09/08).