What is the European Parliament (EP)? It is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Along with the Council of the European Union, it is the main legislative body and responsible for the EU budget. The first European parliament elections were held in 1979 and the latest ones in 2014 resulted in 751 members being elected. Most members and parties of the EP are part of a larger group. Currently, 9 such groups hold seats in the parliament with the European People’s Party (EPP) having the majority.
The EP procedure has two stages. First, 20 committees and 2 subcommittees, for example the Foreign Affairs (AFET) and the Constitutional Affairs (AFCO), come together to prepare legislation. Each committee has to work on a certain policy area and it examines legislation proposals that groups and MEPs have put forward.
Second, there are the plenary sessions where the legislation prepared by the committes is voted upon. Amendments can also be proposed and made a part of the legislation. The MEPs gather once a month in Strasbourg in order to vote for legislation, but if need be, there may be extra sessions in Brussels.
Since the MEPs decide on the legislation that more or less dictates parts of our lives, it’s important to be aware of the political groups that they belong to. Their votes reflect the groups’ policy most of the time.
The EPP is a Christian democratic group of the centre-right. The next group is the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) which holds 191 seats. Their goal is to make Europe socially just and to generally create a better, more democratic Europe. Next comes the European Conservatists and Reformists (ECR) group, which is eurosceptic, meaning they are critical of the EU as a concept. Other groups are the group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the confederal group of the European United Left- Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), the group of the European Greens- European Free Alliance (EFA), the eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the right-wing Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) and the non Inscrits, MEPs that choose not to be a part of any group.
For me, the interesting part about these groups is the people. Each and every one of them comes from a political party back in their country that has aligned itself with a group. What really makes a party choose a larger group? Obviously there must be something else aside from common policies and ideas that form the alliances between party and group. Additionally, the group each party chooses to ally itself with, is essentially, a way for voters to further understand the party’s policies and to see where it stands in several subjects and the political spectrum. For example if a party chooses a group that is eurosceptic, they probably are eurosceptics themselves.
The laws the passed affect both the country and the political parties within it. But do the MEPs and the EP political groups have any influence on national politics? Firstly the influence of the MEPs comes with the experience they acquire, a credential from their role within the parliament, hence they can reach for higher positions and their opinion is considered to be more valuable. The groups have influence as advisory bodies. They can verbally support a political party and talk about certain issues, while also applying pressure to a matter that interests them. As the EP has started to have a greater importance in European politics, national parties have in turn started to care more about the actions of their MEPs and the groups, giving said groups more power.
SYRIZA, the ruling party of Greece, chose to be a part of the European Left. The party defines itself as a left-wing, so the choice comes as no surprise. New Democracy, a centre-right and socially liberal party, aligns itself with the EPP. Often the groups pressure their members into adopting a certain stance regarding a subject and thus, differences occur.
In one particular case back in 2011, during the EPP summit, EPP leaders tried to persuade Mr. Samaras, the then New Democracy leader and future Prime Minister, to support an austerity plan proposed by the EU. He remained opposed to that plan.
Greece first had a vote in the European elections in 1981. It was a by-election that happened after Greece joined the European Community. The other members of the European Community – the EU’s predecessor – had voted in 1979. In 1984, Greece voted along the communities for the first time. However, the relationship between Greece and the EP has had some interesting highlights that show the interaction between the EP and a country. During the Greek economic crisis, the political groups have not hesitated to make their stance clear on whether the current strategy for helping Greece is truly helpful. In a recent debate between S&D, GUE, Greens/EFA (centre-left parties) and the EPP (centre-right party), the centre-left parties supported that no more reforms should be imposed and that a relief strategy is needed instead. The EPP higlighted the importance of such reforms. It is obvious that the interaction between a country and the EP is bilateral.
Another example of how dynamic the relationship between countries and the EP, is the aftermath of the Brexit vote. After the referendum, there have been many heated debate about the british MEPs and how they should be treated. Should they be full members, should they resign, should they remain on the sidelines until the end of their term? There have been many opinions due to the fact that the UK hasn’t yet ratified the infamous “Article 50” and thus, the UK is in a limbo land of quasi-involvement in every day processes. The 73 British MEPs can either be viewed as full members until the end of their term (2019) or they can be rejected their rights since they represent a country that chose to leave the EU and should not take part in its democratic representation. A third opinion would be to remain silent, voting what their party would normally vote. What is certain is that they have lost a significant part,if not all, of their power and massive influence in the EP, possibly impacting the dynamic of the political groups, notably
It is likely that the British MEPs will vote in some matters and choose to abstain from others. Their votes in some matters will be lost and hence, the balance between the groups, and the expected outcome, will change.
Generally, it’s nearly impossible for a group and all the political parties within to have the exact same ideals. Small contradictions don’t influence the orderly function of a group majorly, but it is important to have some uniformity in matters that plague Europe today. If the MEPs in a group have major disagreements on policy matters and the time for voting on such a policy matter arises, it’s probable that the group will be outvoted.
The EP plays a critical role to our lives and it is mostly ignored by younger and older people alike, resulting in the disappointing voting turnout these past few years (42,61% in 2014). The EP is the only EU body that is directly elected by the people of the European countries. With the legislation it passes it influences major parts of our lives. Few people know that they can even petition to the EP for an issue they wish to bring to attention. Ignoring the EP or not being interested in it means you are not voting for MEPs and that means that someone else gets to choose the people that will eventually pass legislation that affects us all. But a part of the problem is how unattractive the EP seems to the average EU citizen. It gives the impression of a far out, strict institution that is only for people that work in politics. Despite the EP’s actions to try to appeal to teens and youth, the EP remains something alien to most of them.
Understanding the way the EP works means understanding the way the EU works, because it is the most democratic institution of the Union and to a certain extent, the only direct liaison between the people and Brussels.