The European Parliament in 2014

Giacomo Benedetto 

The European Parliament (EP)’s elections of 2014 were heralded as a triumph for Eurosceptics and populists across Europe but this success was overblown. Hard Eurosceptics and MEPs from the extreme right increased their seat share from 7% to 13%, while that of the radical Left increased from 5% to 7%. Although this amounted to almost a doubling in the numbers of the extreme right and hard Eurosceptics – who came first in the elections in the UK, France and Denmark – it was hardly the landslide that was widely claimed. In what follows, I shall focus on the role of the EP and its elections in selecting/electing the incoming President of the European Commission, the changing balance of forces in the Parliament, and the election of the new Commission in the autumn of 2014.

The Lisbon Treaty declares that the European Council nominates a candidate to be President of the European Commission, which the Parliament will then “elect”. The only new feature about this rule is the word “elect”. Previously, the European Council, which consists of the heads of government of all the EU’s member states, nominated the head of the Commission, who was subject to a vote of assent by the EP, allowing the latter to accept or reject the candidate. In 2014, the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES), Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), European Green Party (EGP), and European Left Party (ELP) each selected a candidate, following the spirit of the treaty change and the hope that live television debates would increase public interest and voter turnout, rendering the new Commission and Parliament more legitimate.

Several television debates took place between some or all of the candidates, who included the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Claude-Juncker (EPP), EP President Martin Schulz (PES), former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), MEPs Ska Keller and José Bové (EGP) as joint candidates, and the leader of the Greek Left Alexis Tsipras (ELP). The audience for these was limited primarily to Germany and the Benelux countries, with some networks like the BBC refusing to screen the debates. The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), led by the British Conservatives, refused to select a candidate on the grounds of opposing the direct election of the President of the Commission. The harder Eurosceptic faction in the EP, Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD), led by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), also refused to take part due to its outright opposition to the EU.

Table 1: EP seat numbers and seat share of party groups, 2009 and 2014

Party Group 2009 2014
MEPs % MEPs %
EPP 265 36 221 29
S&D 183 25 191 25
ALDE 84 11 67 9
G/EFA 55 7 50 6
ECR 54 7 70 9
EUL/NGL 35 5 52 7
EFD 32 4 48 6
NA 28 4 52 7
TOTAL 736 751

As Table 1 shows, although it still came first, the most significant loser in the 2014 elections was the EPP, which declined from 36% to 29% of MEPs. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D), who had lost in 2009, retained the same level of representation. The ALDE group also did badly, losing seats in Italy, the UK and Germany. It suffered from the defection of its large Romanian delegation to the EPP but managed to recruit the anti-regional Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD). Alongisde the UPyD, the ALDE group retained the MEPs from the Catalan Convergence and Union and Basque National Party, whose outlook is seemingly incompatible with that of UPyD. The European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) group, led by the British Conservatives, saw the British and Czech parties losing seats while the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS) secured gains. The ECR proved very able at recruiting former allies of UKIP in the forms of the radical right-wing Danish People’s Party, Finns’ Party, Independent Greeks’ Party, and the more moderate new Alternative for Germany (AfD), the German Family Party, an anti-censorship party from Bulgaria, and religious conservatives from the Netherlands. It also recruited the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), with 5 MEPs, previously a regionalist party that had been in the same group as the Greens, as well as the Liberals from Slovakia. So the growth of the ECR happened despite its previous members’ net loss of seats due to defections from elsewhere. The radical left-wing European United Left/Nordic Green Left group (EUL/NGL) increased its seat share due to the growing vote for radical left parties across much of the EU and the emergence of new parties.

Finally, Nigel Farage’s EFD Group, renamed EFDD (European Freedom and Direct Democracy) increased its seat share despite the defections to the ECR. UKIP increased its seats from 13 to 24. The rest of the growth was due to the recruitment of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy with 17 MEPs and the formerly neo-Nazi Swedish Democrats with 2 MEPs. The most significant “winner” was the group of non-attached (NA) MEPs, who are not members of any group. Most of the NA MEPs hail from the extreme right, but are unable to form a group due to internal disagreements within this party family. This bloc consists of the French National Front, the Flemish Interest, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the German National Democratic Party, the Lega Nord, Jobbik, Golden Dawn, Bulgarian ATAKA, and the Polish Congress of the New Right.

The EP is a legislature with a very strong Committee-based system. Following the elections, how have the party groups divided up key positions like Committee chairs?

Table 2: Change in EP Committee Chairs between Party Groups in 2012 and 2014

Group 2012 2014
EPP 10 8
S&D 6 7
ALDE 2 3
G/EFA 2 1
ECR 1 2
EFDD 0 0

As Table 2 shows, in line with its diminishing size, the EPP lost two Committee chairmanships. We see a gain of one for the ALDE, despite the ALDE’s loss of MEPs, and a gain of one for the ECR in line with the group’s increase in size. The EFDD should have been entitled to a Committee chairmanship and had opted to chair the Petitions Committee. However, during the opening session of the Parliament in July 2014, UKIP’s MEPs turned their back on the orchestra playing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. As a consequence, the other party groups decided to deny positions like Committee chairmanships to the EFDD. The EPP group retained the Chairmanships of the Industry and Energy, Environment, Agriculture, Legal Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Fisheries, and Constitutional Committees. Given its reduced numbers, the control of the first four Committees gives the EPP great influence over the regulations passed by the Parliament. The S&D group was able to claim the Economics, Trade, Citizens’ Rights and Freedoms, Culture, Development, Women’s Rights, and Human Rights Committees, of which the first three have regulatory impact. ALDE, with its reduced numbers, was able to chair Budgets, Regions, and Petitions, the first two of which control EU spending. The ECR was able to lay claim to the powerful Internal Market Committee and to the Security and Defence Committee. The G/EFA group chairs the Transport Committee, which enjoys some power of regulation and spending, while the leftist EUL/NGL chairs the Employment and Social Committee, which considers social policy regulation.

As Table 3 shows, in the first sitting of the new Parliament in July 2014, Martin Schulz of the S&D group was re-elected as EP President. This was part of a package deal that emerged as a result of the election campaign, the re-emergence of the EPP as the largest group and the nomination/election of Schulz’s opponent, Jean-Claude Juncker, as President of the European Commission. Parliament elects by secret ballot but the delineation of party group support between the candidates was clear. Schulz was supported by the S&D group and most of the members of the ALDE and EPP groups. The G/EFA and EUL/NGL groups ran their own candidates, whose vote numbers reflected their groups’ sizes. The ECR-proposed Sajjad Karim, who achieved 101 votes, attracted some support from other groups, probably including individual members of the EFDD, EPP and ALDE groups who opposed the election of Schulz.

Table 3: Election of the President of the European Parliament, 1 July 2014

Candidate Votes Support from
Pablo Iglesias 51 EUL/NGL
Sajjad Karim 101 ECR, some EFDD, EPP, ALDE
Ulrike Lunacek 51 G/EFA
Martin Schulz 409 S&D, EPP, ALDE

Two weeks later, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected to the Commission Presidency by a consensus almost the same as that of Schulz for the Presidency of the Parliament and also by secret ballot of MEPs with 422 votes in favour, 250 against and 47 abstentions. The EPP, S&D and ALDE groups declared in favour of Juncker. Although the latter two groups had their own candidates, they accepted the outcome of the EP elections and supported Juncker. The Greens were less supportive of electing Juncker but voiced support for the fact that he should be nominated given that he emerged as the winning candidate in the EP elections.

Besides Juncker, the other 27 future members of the European Commission, nominated by their respective national governments, had to appear before the parliamentary Committee pertaining to their proposed portfolios where they were examined on their competence and suitability. Following the hearings, one of the candidates, Alenka Bratusek from Slovenia, was judged ill-suited by the Committees that had interviewed her. As Prime Minister of Slovenia, she had nominated herself for the post and was under investigation for corruption. The new Slovene government then nominated another candidate in her place. Similar rejections of individual Commission candidates by parliamentary Committees had also occurred in 2004 and 2009. The entire Juncker team was eventually approved by the Parliament in October by an open ballot in a proportion similar to that in July for Juncker himself and for Schulz: with 423 votes in favour, 209 against and 67 abstentions. The grand coalition of EPP, S&D, and ALDE held, while the Spanish Socialists and German and Spanish members of the ALDE group abstained, with a handful of French, German and Irish S&D members voting against. The EUL/NGL, G/EFA, and EFDD groups and most NAs voted against, although the Scottish National Party MEPs voted in favour. The official position of the ECR group was to abstain. This group had opposed the principle of the election of the Commission President and Jean-Claude Juncker, but accepted his policies and the inclusion of Jonathan Hill, a British Conservative, within the new Commission. While 38 ECR members abstained, 12 voted in favour and 20 against. Those in favour included 7 of the 20 British Conservatives, the 4 Flemish New Alliance members, and the MEP from the Family Party in Germany. Those against included 3 British Conservatives, together with the more Eurosceptic ECR MEPs from Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece and the Czech Republic.

While the increase in the number of MEPs from the populist right and left in the 2014 EP elections was only small, it made inter-party cooperation between the centre-left and centre-right more necessary than ever. If the super-grand-coalition of EPP, S&D, and ALDE holds on the most important policies, the surge of Eurosceptics will have no effect on the EP until at least 2019. The breaking of the “Luxleaks” scandal in November 2014 – which alleged that Juncker, as Prime Minister of Luxembourg, had established a predatory tax regime in his country – led to a motion of impeachment being tabled by MEPs from the EFDD and NA blocs. The fact that this was overwhelmingly defeated by 461 to 101 votes – with the Greens voting together with the EPP, S&D and ALDE, and the EUL/NGL group choosing to abstain – shows the robustness of the super-grand-coalition with respect to the minority hard Eurosceptics on the right.

Giacomo Benedetto is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway University London.