A house divided by broad political lines

Author: Release date:2019-01-31 20:43:20Source:+Add to My Favorites

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The European Parliament, which represents European citizens, was established as the legislative branch of the European Union. It is the only EU organ elected by direct universal suffrage, for five-year terms. The next election is scheduled for May 23-26.

The EP's three main functions are: adopting EU legislation jointly with the Council of the European Union on the basis of proposals by the European Commission; drafting the EU budget jointly with the Council of the EU and approving the medium-term budgetary framework; and exercising democratic oversight on all EU institutions, for instance, by electing the European Commission president.


The beginning of European integration

In 1951, six European countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany) founded the first organization aimed at European integration-the European Coal and Steel Community-to facilitate post-World War II reconstruction of and industrial development in Europe.

More broadly, the ECSC embodied the determination of those six countries to work together to build peace through economic coordination. It was given a High Authority (the forerunner of today's European Commission), and an Assembly of 78 members drawn from national members of parliament in the represented countries (the forerunner of today's European Parliament).

From 1974 on, European Economic Community leaders sought to impart greater political legitimacy to the EP, and eventually decided that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) would be elected by direct universal suffrage for five years. The first election was held in 1979. And the EP, a mere consultative body until then, became a full-fledged legislature.

The total number of MEPs grew through the successive waves of enlargement, and the reunification of Germany. The number of MEPs peaked in 2013 at 785; today the EP has 751 members. Every member state is free to decide how the election will take place within its national borders. The voting system in each member state is proportional-whether at regional or national level. And the minimum voting age is 18, with the exception of Austria, where it is 16 years.


Digressive proportionality a vital feature of EP

The MEPs are apportioned according to the principle of "digressive proportionality". This means each member state has a number of representatives correlated with the size of its population, though it is not proportional to it. Thanks to this method, countries with smaller populations are not crowded out by those with large demographics.

The election to the EP in May this year will be organized on the same basis. Following the Brexit vote, 46 of the 73 seats held until now by the British will be removed, and the remaining 27 will be re-apportioned among other member states to offset existing demographic gaps between them. As a result, an MEP elected in Germany will represent 856,000 people while one elected in Malta will represent only 67,000 people.

The MEPs form parliamentary groups based on political leaning rather than nationality. A group is formed when at least 25 MEPs from at least one-fourth of the member states (that is, seven countries) can support one political program. The current legislature includes eight groups.


Representation spread among 8 transnational political groups

The leading group has always been the right-wing European People's Party of moderate conservative Christian democrats (29.2 percent of the total seats). It is traditionally dominated by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany/Christian Social Union in Bavaria, and also includes The Republicans of France as well as substantial Polish, Spanish and Italian delegations. The group includes MEPs from all 28 EU member states.

The second-largest group is the left-wing Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (25.2 percent), which combines the socio-democratic and socio-liberal center left. It is the only other group that includes MEPs from all EU 28 member states, including those from the German Social Democratic Party, the Italian Democratic Party, the British Labour Party, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, and the French Socialist Party.

The European Conservatives and Reformists group (9.7 percent) is the third-largest group that holds a Eurosceptic position, and is led by British conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice party ultra-conservative nationalists.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the center-right group, holds 9.1 percent of the seats and has always been the "third power" in the EP.

The Greens-European Free Alliance of left-wing Greens holds 6.9 percent of the seats.

The European United Left-Nordic Green Left, comprising the members of communist parties and the alternative and green left, accounts for 6.8 percent of the seats.

The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy is a group of populist and Eurosceptic MEPs that holds 5.7 percent of the seats.

And the Europe of Nations and Freedom group, with 4.7 percent of the seats, mainly includes France's National Rally (formerly National Front).


Pro-Europe group has always been at the helm

The EP president is elected for two and a half years, that is, half of the tenure of the legislature, which allows the pro-Europe groups at the beginning of the legislature to arrange to split the presidency among them over the five-year term and therefore avoid an institutional crisis that would serve the interests of the Eurosceptic groups.

In the outgoing legislature, the S&D and EEP groups arranged to have the German social-democrat Martin Schultz hold the presidency until January 2017, and the Italian conservative Antonio Tajani since then.

As in the member states' national parliaments, the activities of the EP are divided into two broad stages. First, 20 standing committees draft the bills, and examine the European Commission's proposals, that is, its regulations, directives and decisions. Once the committees have examined the entire text of a bill, it is sent to the floor, where all MEPs debate on it, propose their own amendments and eventually vote. Bills are approved by a simple majority.

Although the EP is unicameral, a back-and-forth movement still takes place in what is called the "co-decision process" with the other lawmaking body-the Council-which represents the member states' national governments. The EP has two broad political dividing lines, and either can play a decisive role depending on the issue at stake: the first among the right, the left, the far right and the center-right; and the second one runs between the pro-EU and the anti-EU groups, subdivided between the nationalists and those who support a Europe of the peoples.

Furthermore, MEPs in every group have their own national political leanings, which can create deep divisions within a group on any given subject.

All of this explains why MEPs spend most of their time seeking ways to form a majority: an operating majority for the election of the president and of standing committee chairs and ad hoc majorities when voting on a bill. This translates into constant bargaining and compromises that are inherent in parliamentary activity but undermine the intelligibility and efficacy of European politics.


Will voters back EP's policies?

What is at stake with the EP elections in May 2019 is the question of whether citizens in the 27 member states of the EU will give their parliament a clear and constructive majority to further all the policies that are key to the future of the EU and to its place in the world: promoting a strong security and defense policy; enhancing the international capacity to fight climate change and the loss of biodiversity; reinforcing the regulation of financial markets; establishing fair social and fiscal norms; adopting ambitious industrial policies; encouraging innovation and research; protecting the environment and the health of the people on the continent; managing migration flows; furthering police and judicial cooperation; and, internally, reforming the EU and eurozone governance processes.


Damien Cesselin is an adjunct researcher at Fudan Development Institute and deputy director of the Department of Report of the Public Session, National Assembly, France. And Corinne Mellul has a PhD in Political Science and is a lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris.

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