Winners and losers in the EP decision-making: climate, ETS, EU budget, development aid, Chile and sexual education

Plenary Session – © European Union 2019 – Source : EP

During the last plenary session, MEPs gave the green light to the new von der Leyen’s Commission, as the eventful 2019 year comes close to an end. After a prolonged period of EU transition limbo, in 2020 the focus will shift back to the day-to-day legislative battles. Who are the future winners and losers of EU politics going to be? There is no need for a crystal ball, as EU policy is, at the end of the day, a game of coalition building (ie. building the numbers), and this is what VoteWatch Europe works with: we have kept track of the policy trends and the party positions’ changes over the past 11 years and can help you forecast where majorities will be on the most important policy battles ahead.

This week, most of the attention was focused on the vote of investiture for the new Commission. However, EU Parliamentarians also fought over the EU Budget for 2020 and the EU environmental strategy.  Other topics such as the situation in Latin America, EU development aid and sexual education in Poland were on top of the EU agenda in November. All these decisions show that despite the broad cross-party support for the new Commission, majorities will be formed on a case-by-case basis when it comes to policy issues.

As usual, VoteWatch Europe looked into the voting behaviour of each of the MEPs to understand the mindset and the priorities of the new elected representatives. As observed over the years, the voting behaviour is the single most important tool to filter out electoral noise and understand what each party and MEP actually stands for. This method also allows us to observe the shifts in trends and to forecast future outcomes of EU decisions. Below are our main take-aways from the latest decisions.

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EU budget: some MEPs disagree with the ministers from their own parties

About 77% of MEPs gave their blessing to the final compromise on the EU Budget for 2020, as the main political families (EPP, S&D, Renew Europe), alongside the Greens/EFA and ECR groups, backed the agreement with the Council. Conversely, left-wing GUE/NGL, right-wing ID, the Brexit Party and a few ECR members opposed, for different reasons, the EU spending plan for 2020. The final agreement entails an increase in the size of the next EU budget compared to the one for 2019 and earmarks more resources for climate-related projects.

As it is usually the case when it comes to budgetary matters, some national delegations did not follow the line of their political groups. However, national tensions were more subsided in the EP than in the Council, where as many as 6 national governments rejected the compromise agreement, namely Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. The reason for the opposition is quite straightforward, as these are all – with the notable exception of Bulgaria – net contributors to the EU budget and are keen on tightening the strings of the EU purse. However, we discovered that  the MEPs coming from the national parties that are currently in government in these countries were less critical of the budgetary set-up than their ministerial colleagues. For instance, the Swedish Social-Democrats, Rutte’s VVD, Dutch CDA and the British Conservatives abstained, whereas only the Danish Social Democrats voted against it, mirroring the position of their party colleagues in the Council.

These slight divergences can be explained by the fact that the positions of the national governments in the Council are subject to bigger domestic scrutiny, in particular by the opposition. By voting against, these national governments avoid the uncomfortable situation of having to explain why they signed up for more EU spending. However, the softer positions of their MEPs indicate that there is little appetite to rock the boat, at least for now. 

Bold proposal by the Greens on CO2 reduction targets gets mixed reaction from S&D

During the latest plenary session, the Greens got the chance to put forward their bold proposals to address the issue of climate change. However, their initiative to set an economy-wide target of at least a 65 % reduction in domestic GHG emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) was rejected by a large majority of MEPs, mainly belonging to the Renew Europe, EPP, ECR and ID groups. While the outcome of this vote is not surprising, it is interesting to observe the reaction of the S&D group, which decided to abstain.

The Social-Democratic group is clearly under pressure to recover the ground it lost to the Greens in key Member States, such as Germany and other North-Western European countries. This also explains why a few members of the group, mainly from UK, Germany, France and Nordic countries, decided to back the Green proposal. However, this was not the case with regards to the Social Democratic members from CEE (except for the Hungarians), where climate change ranks lower among the concerns of the public. This explains why a few S&D MEPs from Bulgaria, Romania and Poland decided to vote alongside the centre-the right groups to oppose a 65% reduction target. In this regard, the decision to abstain was key in ensuring the group’s cohesion (the proposal would have been rejected regardless due to the opposition of Renew Europe and EPP members ).

Super grand coalition fends off criticism of carbon market instruments, but is divided on next steps

A super grand-coalition made up of the three largest groups in the EP, namely EPP, S&D and Renew Europe rejected criticism of carbon market instruments, such as ETS. Quite interestingly, fringe groups from both sides (GUE/NGL and ID) joined forces in pointing out the alleged flaws of carbon trading systems in achieving emission reduction targets. Also, Greens/EFA and ECR seem to partially share such harsh criticism and opted for the abstention. While this mechanism is one of the main pillars of EU emission reduction policy, these groups are opposing it for different reasons. Right-wing groups cast doubt on whether such a complicated system is needed in the first place, as they argue that EU climate policies harm the competitiveness of European companies. Conversely, left-wing groups argue that market instruments are not as effective as public regulation in reducing emissions and advocate for a stricter regulatory approach.

Such mixed views on ETS contribute to explain some interesting voting outcomes, such as the rejection of a direct inclusion of new sectors into the ETS mechanism. This proposal by the EPP passed thanks to the support of a broad coalition made up of right-wing ID and ECR, as well as Renew Europe and the Greens/EFA group, while left-wing S&D and GUE/NGL ended up on the minority side (the graph below shows how the different political groups voted). However, the EPP’s own alternative proposal for an impact assessment on a distinct ETS for these new sectors was rejected, as left-wing (S&D, Greens/EFA, GUE/NGL) and right-wing forces (ECR, ID) disagree with this approach. Given such divergences among the political groups, the new Commission’s plans to extend ETS to the transport sector, and possibly to the building sector as well, is unlikely to be a walk in the park. 

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Challenge for the ‘geopolitical’ Commission, as its supporters are split on whether development aid should be linked to migration

While von der Leyen aims at enhancing the geopolitical weight of the EU, disagreements on the objectives and instruments of EU foreign policy are likely to make the life of the new Commission much more difficult. For instance, should development aid be conditional on third countries’ cooperation with the EU on migration issues? The broad coalition supporting von der Leyen is split on this issue as S&D, the Greens and the 5 Star Movement argue against such link. Conversely, the EPP and ECR are in favour of the conditionality, whereas Renew Europe is split. The graph below shows the breakdown by country on how Renew Europe’s members voted. 

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The side opposing the link between aid and migration management ultimately won by only 9 votes, also thanks to support by a few EPP dissidents (such as Irish Fine Gael). However, such narrow victory is unlikely to provide a clear indication of what the Commission should do. Several governing parties, such as CDU, LREM – just to mention the most important, are of the opinion that the EU development money should be used as leverage to get African countries to help reducing migratory flows. While the new Commission is clearly committed to strengthen its engagement with the African continent, such disagreements on the purpose of this engagement could reduce the effectiveness of the EU pivot to Africa.

Check out our previous reports to discover which MEPs are most supportive/opposed to open migration policy, how MEPs voted on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and on Trump’s migration policies.

Macron’s MEPs disagree with their group and vote with the left on the Chilean protests

A narrow majority of MEPs, mainly belonging to the left-wing groups, managed to elicit a response from the EU institutions on the situation in Chile, where a wave of anti-governmental protests has recently plunged the country into a political crisis. The Social-Democrats, the Greens and left-wing GUE/NGL took advantage of the opportunity to criticise both the handling of the protests by the Chilean police and the neoliberal policies previously adopted by the government, which they deem responsible for the current level of economic inequality.

As always, discussions on democracy and the human rights situation in Latin America are framed based on the geopolitical stance of the country under scrutiny. Since Chile is one of the closest allies of the United States and the Western powers, the political families that are supportive of closer EU-US relations are also the least critical of the Chilean government (Renew Europe, EPP and ECR). However, on Venezuela it’s the other way around: left-wing groups were the least critical of Maduro’s government and tried to prevent the adoption of a motion on the matter.

Despite the overall predictability of such debates, we spotted an interesting split within the newly formed Renew Europe, as Macron’s MEPs decided to break the consensus within the group by backing the proposal by the left. This is not the first time that the French members challenge well-established geopolitical positions within the centrist group, as it was the case a few weeks ago with regards to Iran (Renaissance MEPs supported criticism of US sanctions against Iran, while the former ALDE group used to be rather hawkish on EU-Iran relations). However, on this occasion the French did not manage to get other members of the group to back their positions.

European Conservatives fail to counter push for stronger EU scrutiny of Polish sexual education

The outcome of the European elections in May already foreshadowed the widening rift between Warsaw and Strasbourg, as the growth of Green and Liberal forces in the European Parliament was in strident contrast with the sharp conservative turn of the largest CEE country. In November, MEPs from progressive and centrist forces took aim at a legislative proposal under discussion in the Polish parliament, whose stated purpose is to fight against pedophilia by sanctioning those who promote sexual intercourses among the underage. However, critics claim that this issue is being instrumentalised in order to crack down on sexual education in schools.

As a result, a majority of MEPs voted in favour of a highly critical resolution, which also includes a call on the Council to look into this matter in the context of the infringement procedure against the Polish government for violations of the rule of law. This is quite important, as policies on gender and sexual education are a sensitive area on which the EU institutions have little powers and several Member States are wary of having either the EU or fellow Member States interfering with their decisions on sexual education matters. Nevertheless, this call was approved by a large majority of MEPs (70%), which showcases the difficult position of Law and Justice in the European Parliament. Only its own ECR group, as well as right-wing the ID group, opposed having this matter discussed in the Council, whereas most EPP members sided with the left. While EU-level scrutiny of sexual education is not necessarily a policy stance the most conservative EPP members are comfortable with, this decision is explained by the rising influence of the Polish Civic Platform within this political family (as shown by the recent election of Donald Tusk as the leader of the EPP party), while the main PiS’ ally in the group, Hungarian Fidesz, has become more isolated. Since European political networks play a key role in defining alliances  (despite the recent challenges), the increasing Poland-related tension between EPP and ECR might ultimately affect their cooperation on other policy matters as well.

While these are just the overall trends, other significant findings were also observed with regards to the cohesion of key national parties and the behaviour of individual MEPs. For more detailed information on how each MEP voted on these subjects, check out the wealth of information available on our website! 

VoteWatch tracks all developments at the EU level and provides objective analyses after each EP plenary or major political developments. Contact us at [email protected] for tailored research, datasets or training on MEPs’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas.