How will your vote affect European Parliament groups?
Opinion: The rise of anti-EU fringe parties a key feature of elections
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission at the EPP Congress in Dublin earlier this year. Photograph: Alan Betson
Irish citizens go to the polls next Friday to elect the 11 MEPs who will represent them in the European Parliament for the next five years. The 2014 European elections span four days, with Britain and the Netherlands voting on Thursday, Ireland and the Czech Republic voting the following day, and the remaining 25 countries scheduled to vote on Saturday and Sunday.
While governments are forbidden from announcing official results before 11pm on Sunday, the publication of exit polls from Britain and the Netherlands on Thursday night is likely to colour how the elections are analysed from early on in the process. Both countries are expected to see a strong performance by right-wing, eurosceptic parties, with UKIP and the Dutch Freedom Party possibly topping the polls in their respective countries. Cue much soul-searching on the rise of euroscepticism in next weekend’s papers as election-watchers await the final results.
But while the rise of anti-EU fringe parties will undoubtedly be a feature of these European elections, the salient question is how far these new faces in the European Parliament will impact on EU policy-formation. Central to this is the role of the political group. Political groups have a key function in the 751-member Parliament, imposing structure and shape on the amorphous legislature that is the European Parliament. With hundreds of parties from 28 different political systems represented in the European Parliament, political groups allow MEPs to make political alliances, and forge connections across nations, a rare example of transnational decision-making in the EU parliamentary system.
Two political groups have traditionally dominated the European Parliament – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which includes Fine Gael, and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) which counts the Labour Party as a member, with the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) to which Fianna Fáil is aligned, a close third.
Assuming that candidates campaigning for parties that are already affiliated with political groups remain in these groups following the election, the latest polls indicate that only a handful of seats separate the European People’s Party (EPP) and the S&D. According to PollWatch 2104, MEPs affiliated to the European People’s Party will account for 28 per cent of the next Parliament, down from 36 per cent currently, while the S&Ds will increase their percentage from 26 to 28 per cent. Alde is predicted to fall from 11 per cent to 8.4 per cent, with the Greens at 7 per cent.
Of more importance will be how the so-called “non-attached” will align themselves. Within the European Parliament system membership of a political group is essential for effecting any real change, with a minimum of 25 MEPs from seven countries required to form a group. Being part of a political group guarantees access to the all-important committee system, qualifies MEPs for speaking time and key posts, and ensures eligibility for Parliament funding.
Speculation has begun about how the larger anti-EU parties may align themselves, a tough task in light of the widely-divergent views held by the myriad of populist parties contesting the election. Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and Geert Wilders’s Dutch Freedom Party announced last year their intention to form an alliance in spite of some conflicting policies. While both parties are anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and unwaveringly anti-EU, Wilders supports gay marriage and is pro-Israel in contrast to Le Pen. Nonetheless, Le Pen and Wilders are expected to lead a group that may include the Austrian Freedom Party, Italian far-right party Lega Nord and Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang.
While the challenge of finding common ground should not be underestimated, most of the large anti-establishment parties are likely to put their differences behind them in favour of a semblance of unity if they want to be more than just a lone voice bemoaning the failures of the EU.
For Irish voters, the role of political groupings may also factor. Ireland’s political parties have forged strong links with their European umbrella parties which have helped Irish politicians secure key posts despite Ireland’s small size. The swing behind Enda Kenny as a serious candidate for one of the EU’s top posts this year, for example, derives in part from his long-standing association with the EPP, while senior Labour figures such as Eamon Gilmore and Ruairí Quinn have strong links with the S&D group. The prediction that Labour may not win a European seat is of particular concern given that Ireland would have no presence in the S&D group which may emerge as the largest group in the Parliament.
In the meantime, while EU election-watchers eagerly await the results of the election, the real trend to watch will be the process of political group-formation in the subsequent weeks. This will be the key indicator of whether rising euroscepticism will be simply a populist ideology or a serious force of political opposition and potentially obstructionism in the next European Parliament.
Suzanne Lynch is European Correspondent