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Exercising British Influence

Martyn Bond lifts the lid on appearances and the reality of the European Parliament

 ELECTED IN MAY, the new European Parliament held its first Plenary session in Strasbourg at the beginning of July.  Led by Nigel Farage, UKIP and other anti-European parties made headlines by ostentatiously refusing to respect the European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, when it was played at the opening ceremony in the parliamentary chamber. They made their point, and very publicly, but it cost them dear. To find out why, you have to look behind the headlines.

This very public gesture of contempt for the achievements of the European Union was interpreted by other MEPs as an insult to the European Parliament itself. It hardened opposition among the mainstream MEPs to the UKIP-led Group for a Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD). The majority coalition in Parliament – made up of three centrist political groups: the European Peoples Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Association of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) – refused to grant UKIP any spoils of office. They used their majority to override the convention by which all political groups in Parliament are normally assigned committee chairmanships and vice-chairmanship on the strictly proportional D’Hondt system. EFDD got nothing.

This decision certainly was not a headline grabbing gesture, but it is far more important than shunning the European anthem and the flag. It excludes UKIP and its allies in practice from any steering role in the day-to-day work of the European Parliament. It also serves as an indication of the power of the newly forged alliance of moderate groups, linking EPP, S&D and ALDE.

Parliament carries out its daily legislative and policy work through 20 specialist committees and two sub-committees. The largest of these – Foreign Affairs – has 71 members, three small ones – Fisheries, Legal Affairs and Constitutional Affairs – each have 25. The sub-committees – one on Human Rights (30) and the other on Security and Defence (also 30) – are drawn from the membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Other committees deal with: Development (28), International Trade (41), the Budget (41), Budgetary Control (30), Economic and Monetary Affairs (61), Employment and Social Affairs (55), Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (69), Industry, Research and Energy (67), Internal Market and Consumer Protection (40), Transport and Tourism (49), Regional Development (43), Agriculture and Rural Development (45), Culture and Education (31), Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (60), Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (35) and Petitions (35). But it is less the structure than the people who animate it that shows how the European Parliament works in practice.

In the European Parliament all members are equal – but some are more equal than others. The President is primus inter pares. Elected by secret ballot, he chairs the key plenary sessions, represents Parliament vis-à-vis the other institutions, invites visiting dignitaries, and chairs the all-important Bureau and the Conference of the Chairmen of Political Groups, the bodies which really run the Parliament. President Schulz, a German member of the S&D group, was re-elected President by an overwhelming majority. The 14 Vice-Presidents, among whom there are, exceptionally, no British MEPs this time, are also elected by all MEPs. Subsequently, MEPs are appointed to the specialist committees in numbers reflecting party strength in Parliament as a whole, and there they elect a Chairman and four Vice-Chairmen in each committee.

These officers organise and lead the work of the committee and, not surprisingly, they have a strong voice in setting the agenda. They also carry more clout in debates, help attribute topics to individual MEPs for drafting reports, and have a better chance of using speaking time allotted to their committee in plenary sessions. They play a more central role and enjoy a higher profile than backbench members, and – not without reason – lobbyists, diplomats (both from member states and from third countries) as well as the media home in on these key figures.

At this point, UKIP and its EFDD allies might have expected a reward of posts in a number proportionate to their share of seats in Parliament as a whole.  But by ganging together, the three large, moderate groups – the EPP, the S&D and ALDE – were able not only to exclude the EFDD, but also to place their own MEPs in key positions. Key posts went first to the EPP, then to the S&D, then to ALDE, but also to other groups in Parliament that stayed the right side of a line the mainstream defined as the limit of extremism.  That allowed the Greens, the United Left (GUE) and the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) to share some lesser spoils of office, but not the EFDD, nor the more extreme elements among the non-aligned MEPs, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Yet the share of the spoils that went to MEPs from Britain was relatively meagre: just three chairmanships and four vice-chairs.  Compare that to five chairs and 13 vice-chairmanships that were given to German MEPs. Nonetheless, the list of specific committees where the Brits were elected is not unimpressive.

Claude Moraes, an experienced Labour member for London, was elected Chairman of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). Among key LIBE issues of interest to the UK are asylum, migration and border controls. Linda McAvan, a Labour member for Yorkshire and Humberside, now in her fourth term as an MEP, was elected Chairman of the Development Committee (DEVE). Topics her committee will consider range from the redefinition of the Millennium Goals to the conditionality of development aid, also concerns of the UK. Vicky Ford, a Conservative MEP from the East of England, first elected in 2009, has become Chairman of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection  (IMCO), and her committee’s work will impact on the prospect of the UK remaining in the Single Market while disengaging from further integration in the EU.

The deal between the leading political groups also ensured that three Labour MEPs were elected as Vice Chairmen: Derek Vaughan to the Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT); Afzal Kahn  to the Sub-Committee on Security and Defence (SEDE); and  Catherine Stihler to ‘shadow’ the ECR Chairman of IMCO, Vicky Ford. The one ECR Vice-Chairman elected, Nirj Deva, is also in a position to ‘shadow’ the S&D Chairman of DEVE, Linda McAvan.

The Liberal Democrats did so badly in the recent European elections that they returned only one British MEP to the ALDE group, Catherine Bearder. Well regarded by her fellow MEPs, she was elected one of five Quaestors, officials who manage the technical and personnel issues that arise in Parliament. In a sense it was both a consolation prize and also an emasculation, the offer of a post that is important internally in the Parliament, but far removed from the legislative and policy issues that concern committees.

The decision by the Conservative Party to withdraw from their alliance with the EPP in 2009, followed by the increasingly anti-European nature of the national political debate in London, has marginalised British Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament. The main governing party at Westminster leads a group that is not part of the informal coalition that now runs the Parliament in Strasbourg, and the junior member of the coalition in Westminster has only one MEP in Strasbourg. And yet  Labour is not easily able to capitalise on these weaknesses. In opposition in the UK since 2010, it lacks the direct link to power domestically that French and German S&D MEPs enjoy through membership of the governing party in Paris or of the Grand Coalition in Berlin. The parties of the remaining ragbag of British MEPs (Greens, SNP, Unionist, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru) do not play an important role in Westminster, and in the Strasbourg/Brussels they failed to obtain any official positions in this latest division of the spoils.

All in all, the UK is not in a strong position in this Parliament.  Only a handful of individual MEPs now have positions where they can exercise influence on the substance of legislation. They will be worked hard, as anyone concerned will come knocking on their doors to ensure that British interests are not ignored.


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