Anti-EU fringe remains on outside as top parliamentary posts allocated

Europe Letter: European Parliament needs to demonstrate its democratic credentials

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Peoples’ Party group candidate designate for the presidency of the European Commission (left) and Nigel Farage, chairman of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group of the European Parliament, in Brussels yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Julien Warnand

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Peoples’ Party group candidate designate for the presidency of the European Commission (left) and Nigel Farage, chairman of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group of the European Parliament, in Brussels yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Julien Warnand

Thu, Jul 10, 2014, 01:00

Six weeks ago French prime minister Manuel Valls described the European elections as a “political earthquake” after anti-EU parties topped the polls in countries such as Britain and France.

But as the new European Parliament begins its five-year mandate and the various internal political structures begin to take shape, how much power will MEPs from the political fringes exert on EU politics? Not as much as might have been anticipated.

The failure of Marine Le Pen to form a political group last week was a blow to the far-right National Front. This week, anti-EU parties hit a further setback as the all-important committee chairs and vice- chairs were distributed.

On Monday, a furious Nigel Farage accused the main political groupings of ignoring democracy by blocking his group’s election to a committee chair. Political groups in the parliament are typically assigned committee chairs in accordance with their relative size under the D’Hondt system, but Farage’s Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group’s nominee for the petitions committee was not elected, prompting accusations of a political stitch-up.

Exclusion

The fact that the Green group, hardly a political bedfellow of Ukip, came out in support of Farage suggests the controversial MEP may have had a point.

“The candidate nominated by the EFDD group appears to have all the qualifications and the right approach to adequately exercise this duty,” the Greens’ spokesperson on the petitions committee Margrete Auken said, adding the exclusion of any political group from a committee chairmanship to which it is entitled was “a blow to the democratic process”.

The EFDD’s omission from a committee chairmanship will significantly curtail its power and influence. But according to some parliament officials this is just what some of the more radical anti-EU parties want.

“In reality many of the far-right MEPs didn’t even try for committees,” said one senior parliamentary official this week in Brussels. “They are just interested in the plenary session where they can air their views . . . [for] media in their home country, not on actually influencing the work that goes on in the committees.”

The suggestion that MEPs from the fringe parties have more interest in the oratorical opportunities offered by the monthly plenary session than the nuts and bolts of EU legislation has a grain of truth.

Many Eurosceptic parties have little interest in constructively influencing EU legislation. Rather, their own political identity and legitimacy depends on the continuation of the political status quo – the more the maligned “Brussels bureaucracy” continues on its sorry path, the more fuel for their political arguments.

As has been widely predicted, the real impact of the success of figures like Le Pen and Farage will be on national politics, where they present a real threat to the domestic political order.

Over the next five years, anti-EU MEPs are likely to exploit the paradox embedded in their status as Eurosceptic MEPs – using an institution of which they disapprove to boost their own profile at home.

Nonetheless, the portrayal of the parliament as a homogenous, centrist assembly, but for a few fringe parties, is also misleading.

Far from federalist

While most of the top political groups – EPP, S&D, Alde, Greens – are nominally pro-European, many of their members are far from federalist. Similarly, extreme right figures like Le Pen and Farage may not have landed big-ticket posts, but other, more moderate Eurosceptic parties will have a strong presence. The European Conservative and Reformists group, the third-largest group in the parliament, is represented across the committee system, with members of Alternative fur Deutschland and the British Conservative Party securing key posts.

MEPs from protest parties have also acceded to positions of influence, for example the appointment of a communist Czech MEP as vice-chairman of the industry committee. The intervention of Brian Hayes and Luke Ming Flanagan yesterday during Jean-Claude Juncker’s appearance before parliament groups to ask about direct bank recapitalisation for Ireland also shows how individual MEPs can make national concerns heard.

Significantly, however, the two largest political groups, the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats, held their meetings with Juncker in private. Given the parliament’s staunch defence of the principle of transparency in the controversy over the Spitzenkandidat process the closed-door nature of the meetings seems ill-advised.

As it prepares to assume greater powers and influence in the next five years, parliament will need to demonstrate its democratic credentials.

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