On 13 July 2011 VoteWatch.eu launched its new report on voting behaviour of MEPs, their political groups, and the national delegations within those groups. At a panel discussion in Brussels, MEPs from different political groups debated the report that was presented by Professor Simon Hix. This article looks at the findings of the report and tries to analyse them with an emphasis on certain national delegations.
In the European Parliament votes take place by “roll-call” (recording the voting behaviour of each MEP), or in a non-recorded electronic way, or by showing hands. VoteWatch.eu has examined all 1,896 “roll-call” votes since July 2009, including 545 votes since 1 January 2011: transnational ideological lines continue to prevail over any other possible dimension. The two largest political groups (EPP and S&D) are dominated by the national parties from Germany within those groups. The VoteWatch.eu report confirms that CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union) and SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) hold the “balance of power” (VoteWatch.eu 2011, p. 20). In general, French parties’ positions are to the left of the majority within the three largest groups (European People's Party (EPP), Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ADLE)), while British parties are more to the right.
The level of cohesion in the European Parliament is relatively high and has been around 90%, thus it is considerably higher than the cohesion in the US Congress and only slightly lower than the cohesion in the UK House of Commons. Nevertheless, two specific policy areas (in which the European Parliament gained powers with the Lisbon Treaty) still reveal a breakdown of the cohesion of political groups.
Breakdown of Cohesion (I): International Trade
The Lisbon Treaty considerably increased the powers of the European Parliament: co-decision has been extended to all internal measures in the area of the Common Commercial Policy and international agreements require the consent of the European Parliament if they cover competencies falling under co-decision. Since the issue of free trade usually splits political preferences in a left/right dimension, the “greater left-right divide within the S&D group” (Simon Hix, Professor at the London School of Economics) becomes visible, e.g. in the final vote on the EU-South Korea free trade agreement, where the French Socialists broke away from their group and rejected the agreement. Likewise, the national delegations from Sweden and the UK supported trade preferences for Pakistan, voted against the resolution to reject the Commission proposal, and defected from the line of the S&D group (VoteWatch 2011, p. 12).
In fact, trade policy is made by a centre-right majority where the EPP, ALDE, and ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) (all cohesive) “have led a push for a pro-trade policy” (Brand 2011). They also voted in favour of a resolution “urging EU negotiators to make progress on an EU-India free trade deal” and “were […] crucial in passing an EU-Latin America banana trade pact, which ended one of the longest-running trade disputes at the World Trade Organization.” (Brand 2011)
Breakdown of Cohesion (II): Agriculture
Until 2009 the voting cohesion on agriculture was extremely low across the political groups: 82% for the EPP, 84% for the Socialists, and 83% for the Liberals (all three group about 10 percentage points below their overall cohesion). Apparently there has not been any reason for MEPs to be cohesive, because the powers of the European Parliament in agriculture have been limited so far (only since the Lisbon Treaty the Parliament can play a more important role in the budget of the Common Agricultural Policy).
But the July 2011 VoteWatch.eu report still shows that at the level of national delegations within EPP the Hungarian Fidesz voted with the EPP majority in only 69% of the cases. Most interestingly, the report also compares the rates of agreement or disagreement between the national party delegation leaders: Glenis Willmot (Labour, UK) and Cartherine Trautmann (Parti Socialiste, France) only agree on agriculture in about 50% of the cases. Similarly for the Liberals, “[t]he policy area where the French MD [Mouvement démocrate] has been most opposed to the ALDE majority is agriculture, where its loyalty level dips as low as 59%” (VoteWatch.eu 2011, p. 15). The different conceptions of the Common Agricultural Policy advocated by Britain and France in the Council of Ministers, continue to shape legislative politics in the European Parliament to a certain degree.
The “new kid on the block”: European Conservatives and Reformists
The group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) has been the ‘new kid on the block’ in the 7th European Parliament. It was formed after the 2009 European elections. Its founding father is David Cameron who promised the creation of a less pro-European centre-right group in the European Parliament during its campaign to become the leader of the Tories in 2005. According to the rules of procedure of the European Parliament, a political group must be composed of at least 25 MEPs and at least one-quarter of the Member States must be represented within the group. Three national delegations dominate the group of 56 MEPs: The British Conservatives (25 MEPs), the Polish PiS (Law and Justice Party, 11 MEPs), and the Czech ODS (Civic Democratic Party, 9 MEPs). The ECR group sees itself as “the only anti-federalist group” whose creation had led to a “change in atmosphere” (Jan Zahradil, Chairman of the ECR group). In a left/right dimension the ECR group votes together with the EPP (and possibly ALDE), for example on trade issues. But the group also follows a pro-European/Eurosceptic dimension strictly opposing MEP Andrew Duff’s proposal to create a transnational constituency of 25 MEPs, who agreed in his remarks from the audience at the launch of the VoteWatch.eu report that it had been tricky to define the federal split before the creation of the ECR.
Ultimately, the British Tories will take the decision whether the ECR group will continue to exist or not. They should carefully analyse the costs and benefits of their group compared with the membership in the EPP group before, where they had a generous opt-out and were able to defect the line of their group in about a third of all roll-call votes. Within a large political group that is often part of the winning coalition, the influence might be higher than within a small political group standing against a generally pro-European consensus in the European Parliament.
Conclusion: “Roll-call” votes are vital for transparency
The Lisbon Treaty increased the powers of the European Parliament. Agriculture and international trade are among the policy areas where there is now “more at stake” for the European Parliament. About 18 months after the treaty entered into force this has not yet significantly affected MEPs’ voting behaviour: changing attitudes and orientations is a slow and incremental process. However, following a general rule, the influence of the European Parliament is only high if it is united and cohesive. The leaders of the political groups might indeed use their “carrots” and “sticks” to increase the cohesion of their groups and thus breathe life into the new competences that the Lisbon Treaty gave to the European Parliament.
Obviously “roll-call” votes do not tell everything. They cannot explain how a “first reading agreement” in the co-decision procedure was achieved. But they are a crucial instrument to ensure transparency. Professor Simon Hix called for an increased use of “roll-call” votes. However, MEPs reacted cautious: Rafal Trzaskowski (EPP) warned of “some kind of circus” and Dan Jorgensen (S&D) said that too much transparency could prevent effective decision-making. Beyond this disagreement about an extension of “roll-call” votes, some procedures and practices in the European Parliament seem very strange to citizens. Edward McMillan Scott (ALDE, Vice President of the European Parliament) mentioned at the VoteWatch.eu panel discussion that more than 20 MEPs changed their vote on the seat of the Parliament that took place in June 2011 – a move that only affects their personal recorded vote, but not the overall result.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
- How the European Parliament had its “say” on the EEAS
- Le Parlement européen face à la Russie : un diplomate ?
On the internet
- VOTEWATCH.eu, 'Voting in the 2009-2014 European Parliament: Who Holds the Power?' , Report, July 2011.
- BALE, Tim, HANLEY, Sean, and SZCZERBIAK, Aleks, ''May contain nuts'? The reality behind the rhetoric surrounding the British Conservatives' new group in the European Parliament', Political Quarterly 81 (1):85-98., 2010
- BRAND, Constant. . Winning votes with discipline and preparation . European Voice, 14/07/2011.
- CORBETT, Richard, JACOBS Franciss, and SHACKLETON, Michael, The European Parliament. 8th ed. John Harper: London, 2011
- DINAN, Desmond, 'Institutions and Governance: A New Treaty, a Newly Elected Parliament and a New Commission', Journal of Common Market Studies 48:95-118, 2010
- HIX, Simon. 'What to expect in the 2009-14 European Parliament: Return of the Grand Coalition?' European policy analysis, 8. SIEPS, Stockholm, Sweden, 2009
- HIX, Simon, NOURY Abdul, and ROLAND Gérard, Democratic politics in the European parliament. Cambridge University Press: Cambridg, 2007
- PIRIS, Jean-Claude, 'The Lisbon Treaty : a legal and political analysis,' Cambridge studies in European law and policy. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2010
Source photo : Members of the EP voting, by European Pariiament, on flickr