Winners/losers in EU decision making: climate-trade link, enlargement, chromium, migrants, Thomas Cook, Algeria churches

While preparing to decide the fate of von der Leyen's Commission next month, last week the EU Parliamentarians engaged in the most hectic EP plenary since the EU elections, as the different EU political families formed and changed ad-hoc coalitions in order to provide political impetus to their proposals on the future policy direction of the EU.

Due to the ever shifting coalition arrangements, there was no overall winner or loser, since those who were on the winning side on some of the topics ended up being defeated on other matters. For instance, the economically-liberal forces suffered setbacks as they were outvoted on a proposal for a mandatory climate clause in all trade agreements. However, they succeeded in fending off some of the left-wing proposals, for example those related to workers' rights in case of insolvent employers. Conservative forces succeeded in shooting down a report aimed at supporting search and rescue operations of migrants at sea. However, they were prevented by the left from putting the issue of Algeria's closure of churches on the EU agenda. Finally, while the support of Renew Europe was often pivotal for building majorities on some subjects, Macron's group remained isolated when it came to the proposal of reforming the EU enlargement format.

All in all, all political forces have some reasons to celebrate, but also to be concerned about the lack of support for some of their proposals. 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 last week’s decisions.

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EPP defeated as progressive groups push for mandatory ‘climate’ clause in trade agreements

The centre-right wing group EPP was outvoted on a key proposal that is set to affect the already fraught trade relations between the EU and the United States. A progressive coalition managed to pass a call on the Commission to include a mandatory clause demanding the implementation of the Paris agreement in all EU trade deals with third countries. Since Trump is committed to leave the Paris agreement, such a request by the EU could result in halting a potential EU-US trade agreement (after its predecessor, TTIP, was also buried). This is also a signal for other trade partners that might not be doing enough on climate. A pivotal role was played by the Renew Europe group that decided to join the Social Democrats and other left-wing forces in supporting the mandatory clause.

The main opposition to using climate as a tool in trade agreements is coming from the EPP and ECR groups, which are traditionally more supportive of free trade. However, some EPP delegations are supportive of climate-driven trade protectionism, such as the French Républicains and Irish Fine Gael (the party of trade commissioner-designate Phil Hogan). Right-wing Identity and Democracy was even more divided, as the three largest delegations all voted in a different way, showing that views on trade topics are far from being consensual within the group. While Italian Lega is against linking climate to trade, such initiative gets the support of the more protectionist French Rassemblement National. As for the Germans, AfD MEPs are undecided.

 

Commission’s recommendation on authorisation of chromium trioxide is rejected by only 6 votes as centrist forces are split

As previously observed in our reports, most (post EU elections) MEPs seem to be at odds with the recommendations of the European Commission when it comes to the authorisation of chemical products. While the Commission's technocrats greenlighted chromium trioxide (CrO3) for limited authorisation, an EP objection managed to get the support of a narrow majority of MEPs, mainly belonging to left, while centrist Renew Europe was (almost) split down the middle on this matter. While CrO3 is defined as a confirmed carcinogen, the product is authorised for limited purposes, such as chrome plating  in the automotive industry due to lack of safer alternatives.

The map below shows how different the views are within the Renew Europe family. Such divide is similar to what we observed during the previous plenary session, as the different views on chemical regulation within the group seem to be rather difficult to reconcile.

 

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Diversity in views could also be observed within S&D, as Spanish PSOE did not follow the group’s line in backing the objection. Some PSOE MEPs sided with the right in defending the Commission's approach (Maldonado López, Ruiz Devesa, Gardiazábal Rubial, Rodríguez-Piñero, García Muñoz, Jonás Fernández and González Casares), whereas Sanchez’s party was rather divided on this matter (4 Spanish Socialists voted in favour of the objection, 7 of them abstained).

Despite the defections of some S&D delegations, the coalition opposed the authorisation of chromium trioxide could count on the support of an even bigger number of EPP 'rebels', among whom the MEPs of the Greek and Cypriot governing parties. Notably, the decision of New Democracy MEPs to vote alongside the left (with the exception of Vangelis Meimarakis, who is vice-chair of the EPP group) contributed to the defeat of the coalition supporting the EC's decision on the authorisation of CrO3.

  Macron's political group remains isolated in its proposal to reform EU enlargement format

After France took most of the blame for blocking the start of the EU membership negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania (even though Denmark and the Netherlands also opposed it), Renew Europe looked for support among MEPs for the Macron-driven proposal to reform the EU enlargement format (read: find a procedural reason to stall the process). However, such proposals were soundly rejected by the other MEPs, probably due to strong resentment towards the unwavering French veto on further enlargement. Only a handful of MEPs belonging to Dutch CDA (in government in The Hague), Danish Social Democrats (in government in Copenhagen), and few others, backed the proposal for a review of the format for membership negotiations and broader EU institutional reform.

This vote shows that, even though Renew Europe is, in some matters, the top kingmaker in the new European Parliament, the group remains influential when it can swing the balance of power between two equally sized coalitions. However, when the group comes up with its own proposals, it risks ending up isolated, as other political groups are easily annoyed by heavy-handed approaches that are more likely to work at the national level, but not at the European one, where bridge-building is more important due to the fragmentation of power.

On the other end of the policy debate, the Socialist and Democrats group was particularly supportive of helping North Macedonia and Albania, also because fellow Social Democrats are in power in those two countries. The S&D group proposed an amendment with the purpose of explicitly highlighting France as the main culprit for the setback, concealing the names of the other two countries that opposed the start of the negotiations (including Social Democrats-led Denmark). However, S&D’s manoeuvre did not get much support from the other MEPs, with some interesting exceptions such as Italian Lega (which repeatedly clashed with Macron while in government in Rome).

Conservatives claim victory as a proposal to facilitate SAR (Search and Rescue) of migrants in the Mediterranean is defeated by only 2 votes

All hell broke loose when MEPs voted on an initiative calling for stronger EU support of SAR (Search and Rescue) operations in the Mediterranean. The proposal, which was ultimately rejected by only 2 votes, also advocated for a stronger EU mechanism to relocate the people arriving by sea among Member States. The draft proposal met the opposition of the right-wing forces, namely EPP, ECR and ID groups, which proposed some modifications that focused on the need to curb the inflow of migrants by cooperating with third countries, like Libya, and by adopting a stricter approach on the NGOs' vessels that are rescuing migrants.

While many of their right-wing modifications were rejected, the conservative forces rallied enough votes to delete some of the most disputed elements, such as a call on the Commission to inquire the legality of actions by national authorities to prevent rescue boats from entering their territorial waters without prior authorisation (a clear reference to Salvini’s tough line against vessels operated by NGOs). In this case, a coalition made up of EPP, ECR, ID and the Brexit Party managed to defeat the progressive forces by 2 votes, also due to some defections within S&D and Renew Europe (e.g. Maltese Labour Party and Mark Rutte’s VVD also voted against asking the Commission to perform such an inquiry).

Despite the few modifications, the EPP and its allies were dissatisfied with the final proposal and tried to shoot it down. A progressive coalition made up of S&D, Renew Europe, Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL was ultimately defeated, despite getting the support of some EPP members, mainly from Southern Europe (e.g. Portuguese MEPs Rangel, Lidia Pereira and Monteiro de Aguiar voted alongside the left). However, parties such as Czech ANO 2011, Dutch VVD, as well as the Hungarian Democratic Coalition from S&D sided with the forces that are more critical of supporting SAR operations in the Mediterranean, helping them secure a razor-thin majority. With such a small distance between the two opposing coalitions, the number of kingmaker MEPs that can swing the outcome of the vote increases exponentially. For more information, check out our interactive breakdown of the vote.

Left-wing coalition narrowly rejects proposal to put Algeria’s shutdown of churches on the EU agenda

A narrow majority of MEPs  (46% vs 50%) rejected a proposal by right-wing Identity and Democracy group to elicit an EU response on the closure of a few Protestant churches by the Algerian authorities. The bid failed despite getting the support of the EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament, as well as the backing of Polish-led ECR. The conservative forces were put in minority by a broad coalition including Renew Europe, the Social Democrats, the other left-wing groups and even the Brexit Party.

However, some Central and Eastern European members of S&D and Renew Europe displayed discomfort with the stance adopted by their political groups (not to open a debate on the matter). These defections almost tilted the balance of power in favour of the right-wing coalition. For example, Polish Bogusław Liberadzki (S&D) and Marek Paweł Balt (S&D), as well as Romanian Carmen Avram (S&D), Clotilde Armand (RE) and Dragoş Pîslaru (RE), voted in favour of an EU's reaction to the events in Algeria. Some of their fellow colleagues from S&D and RE also expressed dissent with their political groups and abstained (such as former EC Commissioner Corina Cretu).

 

Green MEPs’ opposition contributes to defeat of left-wing proposals on workers’ rights and deficit criteria

 

Following up on the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook Group, a call by the Social Democrats for a legal EU provision to define the rights of workers in the event of insolvency of travel agencies failed to make it through the plenary, also due to the opposition of the Greens/EFA group. Notably, the proposal did manage to get the support of other political groups from the hard left and hard right of the political spectrum (GUE/NGL and ID groups), which means that Green votes provided a key contribution to swing the balance of power in favour of the opposing front (which also includes Renew Europe, EPP and ECR).

This was not the only occasion when Green MEPs disagreed with the other left-wing groups last week. A proposal to exclude national co-funding of EU programmes, funds and instruments from the deficit criteria was supported by S&D, GUE/NGL and even most members of Identity and Democracy (namely Lega, RN and Vlaams Belang). However, less than half of Greens/EFA members voted in favour of this proposal. While the proposal got the blessing of the French and British members of the group, it triggered the opposition of Green members from Northern and Central Europe, whereas the German Greens were in disarray (5 voted in favour of less stringent rules, 8 voted against, 5 abstained). The mixed views of the Grünen MEPs on a proposal backed by the other main German progressive forces - SPD and Die Linke - explain the lack of cohesion of a political group that is otherwise the most united in the European Parliament. The map below shows the Green divide on the thorny issue of deficit criteria.

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Since the Greens/EFA group was the only left-leaning force to gain ground during the recent Parliamentary elections, the other progressive groups need the Greens more than ever if they want to defeat the more economically liberal groups (Renew Europe, EPP and ECR). However, the different geographical makeup of the three groups (GUE/NGL and S&D are strong in Southern Europe, whereas the Greens are very weak in that region) indicates that disagreements are more likely to arise on issues that tend to pitch the South against the North, such as the debate on the deficit criteria.

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We observed other significant trends with regards to the cohesion of key national parties and the behaviour of individual MEPs. In the PRO part of our report below, we have taken a closer look into the behavior of the MEPs belonging to the new ID group to understand the topics where this group may be influential. To access this part, log in with your PRO credentials, or contact us to ask for a PRO subscription. 

For more detailed information on how each MEP voted on these subjects, check out our website www.votewatch.eu

VoteWatch tracks all developments in the EP and provides updates after every EP plenary. Contact us at [email protected] if you need tailored research or training on MEPs’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas.

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Extra: How do right-wing nationalists vote on regulatory matters?
This analysis is part of VoteWatch Intelligence PRO content. To read the full analysis you need to log-in with a PRO account. If you don't have one, contact us at [email protected]

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