This May’s European elections have substantially changed the composition of the UK delegation to the European Parliament. Unfortunately, although Britain is a force in managing European political groups, it is not particularly well represented in the Parliament’s senior leadership. This deficit, combined with the reduction in the number of members from mainstream UK parties, means that, unless British MEPs can punch above their weight, Britain will have to adapt to having less say in the Parliament.
The first plenary of the incoming European Parliament took on place on July 1st in Strasbourg, bringing together new and returning MEPs. Britain sent 73 MEPs out of the total 751 members, following a 36% turnout in the European elections this past May. As reported at the time, the success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which came first in the UK’s EU vote, was a shock to the establishment. Labour made some gains, but not enough, it was argued. The Conservatives did quite well for a party in government, it was said, and the Liberal Democrats were nearly wiped out.
Members of the European Parliament are elected at national level with candidates from national or local parties. Each Member State decides its own voting procedure, but EU law requires it to be a form of proportional representation. Party list systems, both closed list (voters choose only the party) and open list (voters have some degree of choice of candidates) and single transferrable vote are the norm. Most national parties belong to broad European parties and their MEPs sit in the Parliament in political groups made up of these European parties.
Britain has profited from relatively substantial influence in the Parliament. This power is the result of several factors. First, its size – with 73 MEPs (9% of the incoming Parliament), the UK is tied with Italy for the greatest representation after Germany (96 MEPs) and France (74 MEPs). Second, the UK delegation always brings large groups of MEPs from the same party, since the British political system has a comparatively small number of successful parties, compared to other EU states. Having substantial blocs of MEPs allows UK parties to have a significant say in their groups.
To that end, in the outgoing Parliament, the UK was one of the best represented Member States in terms of group leadership. British parties were the single driving force behind two EP groups, the ECR (Conservatives) and the EFD (UKIP), and leading elements of two further groups, the S&D (Labour) and ALDE (Liberal Democrats). Third, UK MEPs collectively represent a big Member State with views which are heard across EU capitals. Although the MEPs do not speak for the UK Government, they do convey the state of British national politics, and members from parties in government can speak with greater insight on government positions.
So the matter remains: will the UK continue to have the same influence as before in the incoming Parliament? In order to answer this question, it’s useful to consider the position of each of the UK’s three national parties plus UKIP, comparing their standings in the outgoing and incoming Parliaments. Figure 1 gives the number of members and vote shares for the parties, reflecting the final configuration of the outgoing Parliament and the current position going into the new Parliament.
Figure 1: UK MEPs and party vote shares in 2009-2014 and 2014-2019
* MEPs who left the party they were elected to and became independent (instead of joining another party) | Note: Numbers for MEPs 2009-2014 reflect the final composition of the outgoing Parliament (ie not the original election result, as a number of MEPs subsequently changed parties). Numbers for MEPs 2014-2019 are as of the opening of the incoming Parliament. Vote shares are from the original European elections. | Source: European Parliament 2014 election, EP Office in UK MEPs 2009-2014
The Conservatives lost seats on the outgoing Parliament, dropping from 25 to 19. This fact is not particularly surprising, as governing parties frequently have poor results in European elections. Voters normally view the contests, like local elections, as an opportunity to express their opinion on national politics. Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ relatively contained losses were viewed as promising, despite the party finishing third in a national election for the first time in its history. All told, its performance was fairly solid for a party in government.
However, the Tory EP results will have an impact on how its parliamentary group is run. The party left the centre-right EPP-ED in 2009 to form its own group, the centre-right ECR. As I have recently noted, the Conservatives used to have enough MEPs to nearly control the group outright. Entering this Parliament, it is now on a par with the Polish Law and Justice Party, which also has 19 seats, and the addition of a number of new parties to the group has further diluted its weight. Consequently the Conservatives can now be outvoted in the ECR. The party continues to hold a prime place in the group, but its colleagues will undoubtedly expect more say in running it.
Labour gained 7 seats, moving from 13 to 20. It was both normal and expected that the main opposition party would make advances in the European elections. At the same time, Labour had more or less nowhere to go but up, considering that the last EP contest took place under the extraordinarily unpopular tenure of Labour’s Gordon Brown, in what was the final contest before the 2010 general election. However, Labour did not see the kind of gains normally expected of the opposition if it is going to win the next Westminster election.
The party is a member of the S&D, the main centre-left bloc in the Parliament. Despite the increase in Labour’s ranks, it remains overshadowed by the Italian and German socialists. Originally, it was unclear whether Labour was going to face some difficulty in the S&D, as it did not support the PES’s candidate for European Commission President. However, any animosity towards Labour from the other socialist parties seems to be contained. Labour is best placed to shape EU legislation of all the UK parties, since the S&D is one half of the ‘grand coalition’ between the centre-right and the centre-left (with the liberals sometimes joining as well).
Figure 2 shows the senior positions held by UK parties in the Parliament for the first half of the new term and the second half of the last one (all leadership roles last for 2.5 years out of the Parliament’s 5 year lifecycle).
Figure 2: UK leaders and chairs in the Parliament in 2012-2014 and 2014-2017
*EFDD was known as EFD in the last Parliament | Note: The Bureau includes the President, 14 Vice Presidents and 5 Quaestors. Since the Parliament’s President was not from the UK during this time, the ‘Bureau’ figures reflect number of Vice Presidents and Quaestors. The ‘Chairs’ figures only include Committee Chairs (not Vice Chairs). | Source: EP VPs 2012, EP Qs 2012, EP Chairs 2012, EP VPs 2014, EP Qs 2014, EP Chairs 2014
The figures on British representation in the Parliament’s leadership are most interesting in that the Liberal Democrats have much the same weight in this Parliament as the last. This is surprising, as the party was almost entirely shut out of the assembly, tumbling from 12 seats to 1. Of the two parties in government, the Lib Dems have suffered the worst of popular disapproval. Such a fate can often befall the junior partner in a coalition, as was recently the case for the German liberals, the FDP. The Lib Dem’s massive defeat comes despite a passionate European campaign effort. This year’s elections have undoubtedly been a serious cause for concern, including for the party’s upcoming electoral prospects.
As part of ALDE, the liberal group in the Parliament, the Liberal Democrats are normally in a position to influence EU policy in exchange for supporting the centre-right or the centre-left – or, increasingly, both of them. However, with just a single MEP, the party can only have a limited impact in the organisation. That being said, ALDE is now composed of a significant number of micro-delegations of 1 or 2 MEPs, so the party will not be alone in its small size. The long-term consequences of such an immensely reduced representation in the Parliament will only likely be known in the years ahead.
UKIP came first in the UK’s European elections, more than doubling its number of MEPs, from 10 to 24. Its success was the topic of great discussion, often in the frame of the impact on British politics overall and the forthcoming general election in particular. Speculation aside, it remains to be seen what role UKIP will play in domestic politics. What is clear is that the party now compromises a substantial part of the UK delegation to the European Parliament.
The EFDD, formerly known as the EFD, is the right-wing group headed by UKIP in the Parliament. Its position has left it isolated and in general avoided by the larger groups. As a result, UKIP finds itself in a situation of having more MEPs than ever before, but not necessarily with a commensurate increase in its ability to determine the Parliament’s outputs. In the recent allocation of committee leadership positions, the EFDD was entitled to a chair, but it was blocked from acquiring one by the EPP, S&D and ALDE. Perhaps paradoxically, Britain’s largest European Parliament party is also the least influential.
Britain’s influence in the Parliament
With the Conservatives limited in their own group (itself bypassed by the EPP and S&D for ALDE), Labour outflanked in the centre-left, the Liberal Democrats near obliterated and UKIP isolated, Britain’s prospects for this European Parliament appear less than brilliant. Although the UK performs strongly in managing groups in the Parliament (Britons lead 2/7 groups), it is only modestly represented in the Parliament’s leadership (1/20 senior leadership roles and 3/20 committee chairs).
The results for Britain are a European Parliament in which it has less clout and a weakened ability to shape EU law. Despite UKIP’s large gains, it is too far outside the mainstream to have any impact on policymaking. Even if it were to moderate its views, the EPP, S&D and ALDE have already demonstrated that they will isolate the EFDD in order to maintain their course. The other UK parties in the Parliament will presumably make every effort to maximise their influence, but with fewer numbers overall it will be more challenging to do so.
Five years is a long time to be underrepresented. Were the main British parties to retake seats in the 2019 European elections, it’s unclear whether they could easily recover their previous levels of influence. Britain may well have to adapt to having less of a collective say in the European Parliament. This reality is all the more unfortunate, as the Parliament has more power than ever to shape the European Union, the latest example being its success in determining the selection of the European Commission President.
British MEPs have little option but to do their best to represent their constituents and attempt to overcome the influence shortfall. They should not preclude cooperating with each other, regardless of their political affiliations, where it is beneficial for Britain. As with most European publics, the British public doesn’t seem to take the European Parliament elections very seriously. It would be extremely good if this apathy would change, as the importance of both the European Union and the European Parliament’s role in it become ever more evident.
Shortened link: britainseurope.uk/20140711
How to cite this article:
Salamone, A (2014) ‘Britain’s representation in the European Parliament’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 11 July 2014, britainseurope.uk/20140711