EU Political Parties
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Party politics is seldom a major factor in most of the EU institutions. But in the European Parliament, where members sit in one of seven political groups organised by political affiliation rather than nationality, it does play a significant role. On most issues voting in the Parliament divides along broad left/right lines, but because EU parliamentary parties are coalitions of different national parties, agreements generally rely upon consensus among many groups. This is particularly important because no group has an overall majority in the Parliament.
Party politics, as understood at the national level, was not originally expected to play an important role in the European project. The aim of the founding fathers of the European Community was to avoid controversial political decisions by seeking consensus wherever possible, even on technical topics like trade and competition. When political leaders met in the European Council, or Council of Ministers, they were to represent their national government, rather than party interests. Most decisions are made by consensus, with all Council members having to vote in favour of a new policy or changes to existing policies.
As the powers of the European Community expanded, so calls grew for more democratic representation. Originally, the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were chosen by the national parliaments. However, in 1979 the first direct elections were held, allowing the citizens of the member states to vote for the candidate of their choice. Since then, direct elections have been held every five years. There are currently 751 MEPs.
With the growth of the legislative powers of the Parliament, party politics has gradually begun to play a part in the EU decision-making process. The Commission has sought to strengthen the parties in the EU Parliament in an effort to boost turnout at elections. For example. the co-decision procedure, introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, led to a greater emphasis on party politics. Then, in 2004, the EU passed a statute that allowed EU political parties to receive funds from within the EU budget.
Following the 2009 European Parliament elections, the rules governing EU political parties changed and they now need to be composed of at least 25 members from seven different member states. The new rules have been criticised as undemocratic because they ban small parties. The newest parties, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) groupings, were established in 2009. The UK Conservative Party left the European People’s Party (EPP) to create the ECR party, and the EFD group merged several parties – such as the UK Independence Party – that constituted the former Independence/Democracy and Union for a Europe of Nations groupings.
The main groups in the European Parliament
Below are listed the main party groupings in the European Parliament and the number of MEPs for each party in the 2014-19 parliamentary term. Allegiances and groupings often shift.
- European People’s Party (EPP): the main centre-right group. 221 members. Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D): the main centre-left and socialist group. 191 members.
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE): the main liberal and centrist group. An amalgamation of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, and the centrist European Democratic Party. 59 members.
- Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA): a mixed grouping of environmentalists, regionalists and nationalists. 55 members.
- European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR): newest right-wing party which is a breakaway group of the EPP and opposes their pro-European stance. 54 members.
- Confederal Group of the European United Left (GUE)/Nordic Green Left (EUL/NGL): a far left and Communist grouping. 45 members.
- Europe of freedom and democracy Group (EFD): a group of staunch nationalists and Eurosceptics. 32 members.
- Non-attached and others: there are 94 independent members.
- Political parties have an important role in representing the different interests that exist in society.
- A lively party political system allows for open and frank debate about issues which might not be possible when the aim is to reach consensus.
- Developing a party system for the whole of Europe could play an important role in creating a stronger sense of a shared European identity.
- European countries have such different political cultures and traditions that it is difficult to imagine how Europe-wide political parties could operate.
- The EU is now so large and diverse that it is hard to create a single political debate. Voters in European elections make decisions based on what is happening in their country, not on the interests of the EU as a whole.
- Coalitions often act with conflicting goals and values. For example, the largely EU-sceptic British Conservative Party left the EPP group in June 2009 due to political differences with other members, including the avowedly pro-European German Christian Democratic Union.
“More Left-Right politics at the European level is not only inevitable but is also healthy, as it will allow the EU to overcome institutional gridlock, will encourage policy innovation and so will increase the legitimacy of the EU.” – Simon Hix, Notre Europe Research Association.
Co-decision: A structure that means that EU decisions must be taken jointly by the Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
Coalition: a formal agreement between political parties to share power in government.