The Greens in the European Parliament: an overview

Nathalie Brack and Camille Kelbel

Over the recent period, European Parliament (EP) political groups, their behaviour, coalition formations and cohesiveness have raised lot of public attention as well as scholarly interest. Admittedly, the EP groups’ cohesion has increased over time as the main ones have grown and as the powers of the Parliament have increased. Most observers, however, tend to focus on the larger EP groups, which dominate the chamber politically. As a result, we know comparatively little about smaller groups, including the Greens. Despite diverging views of the various parties on several issues – including on the process of European integration itself – and a somewhat wobbly alliance with the regionalists, the Green group has managed to become one of the most cohesive ones, in the sense that its MEPs increasingly tend to align and vote together in the assembly (we concentrate here on the period up to the 2014 EP elections). Let us examine why this is the case.

Graph 1: EP Groups Cohesiveness in Roll Call Votes

Graph1

Source: Cicchi, 2011: 141
SOC.: Party of European Socialists, then Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)
EPP: European People’s Party-Christian Democrats & Conservatives, (EPP-ED), then EPP alone
ELDR: European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party (ELD, ELDR), then Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, after 2004)
LEFT: Radical Left (COM, LU, EUL/NGL) and Italian Communists & allies (EUL)
GREENS: Greens & allies (RBW[84], G, G/EFA)
ANTI: Anti-Europeans (EN, I-EN, EDD, IND/DEM after 2004, then EFD)
NA: Non-attached members

A first stream of explanation that naturally comes to our mind is the characteristics of the political group. Although it manages to be more influential on some policies (for example, data protection, environment policy) than its size would suggest, as a small group it is clearly not able to play a similar role as larger groups, such as the European People’s Party (EPP) or Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) which still dominate EP politics. The group is not in a position to strongly influence EP legislative outcomes on most issues as the parliament tends to be dominated by a ‘2+1 coalition’ that excludes it. Neither does it have many ‘sticks and carrots’ to reward or punish its members in case of defection as it does not control the main EP positions and offices. Besides its limited size, the group is constrained by its high diversity: it contains members from two European political parties, the European Green Party (EGP) and the European Free Alliance (EFA), that negotiate a political agreement on a yearly-basis, and embodies MEPs from no less than 15 member states and 21 national parties.

In our recent chapter on the topic, we find two main elements explaining why MEPs from the Greens-EFA group nevertheless often come to vote together: strategy and organisation. First, the Greens have developed a specific strategy aiming at maintaining the group’s unity by focusing on non-contentious issues among national delegations. This seems to be in line with the idea of a ‘mellowing’ of fundamental Green values and issues (Bomberg, 2002) rather than the development of a pan-European Green ideology as such. Our interviews suggest that the cohesion of the Greens is related to the group’s ability to leave aside more problematic matters and focus on consensual issues such as: ecology, the integrated approach of environment in other policy fields, peace and more diffuse policies related to ‘good governance’ concerns (such as data protection, transparency). At least in part thanks to this strategy, the Greens have been the first party at European level to run on a common platform for EP elections.

Second, the group’s organization is key to ensuring its cohesion. We argue that the Greens’ cohesiveness revealed by the roll call votes is at least partially explained by structural discipline mechanisms. This discipline does not echo the group’s general characteristics but rather its organizational specificities and level of institutionalisation. Although the Greens/EFA group cannot be considered one of the major groups, its organisation is very similar and plays a key role in its cohesiveness. The group has two deputy secretary generals who work at maintaining contacts with MEPs, policy experts, its co-Presidents and external actors. The group’s cohesion appears to be among their priorities. It also holds regular meetings as well as thematic working groups to define the common line. And all key political decisions are taken by the Bureau where ‘a common language’ is defined, especially when the position of the group is not self-evident. Furthermore, the Greens have adopted a co-presidency system and the leadership also plays a key role in ensuring the group’s political unity. The analysis of the frequency of contact shows that the Greens/EFA MEPs indicate a higher contact frequency with their group leaders than with national Ministers, members of their national political party or members of their national party’s executive. Moreover, our research has found that Greens/EFA MEPs also indicate a higher frequency of contacts with their group leader than MEPs from any other political group.

The patterns in terms of voting recommendations reinforce this idea. Group leaders dispense voting recommendations on specific policy issues. Greens/EFA MEPs indicate that they received voting recommendations from the group leadership more frequently than from other sources (the national government, national party leadership, national party delegation of MEPs, or EP committee leadership). The frequency of voting recommendations from the group leadership is also higher according to Greens/EFA MEPs than to their colleagues from other political groups.

The role of the national delegation – that is, the gathering and organization of MEPs from the same national party – could also be a key determinant for a group’s cohesion. Although the Greens/EFA group is subject to the influence of national delegations (and has often been dominated by the two large delegations, the Germans and French), this influence is arguably lower than in other groups in the sense that national delegations do not seem to constitute an obstacle to cohesion within the Greens/EFA group. If national party positions often differ from the EP group’s position, the culture of deliberation and compromises often helps to close the gap. Second, accounting for the delegations, the organization of the group reflects the balance of power between the national delegations. As in other groups, the leadership of the EP party is composed of the leaders of the larger national delegations. This eventually entails less policy conflicts for the MEPs from these major national parties, which make up the bulk of the group. These leaders thus retain control over a large proportion of the group’s MEPs. The co-presidency appears as a specific means of national delegation management. Given that the Greens/EFA group is almost invariably dominated by the French and the German delegations, its positions are largely traceable to the positions of these national delegations, which are also the more loyal.

In a nutshell, the Greens have become the most cohesive group in the EP and the organizational structure of the group plays a significant role in this respect. Through the function of its staff as brokers of interest, the importance given to co-leadership, the interactions between the group and the national delegations, as well as the strategy of the group to avoid controversial issues, the Greens/EFA group manages to be united on a wide range of policy areas. Yet, other explanatory variables deserve further research. Internally, analysing roll call initiative strategies would shed further light on the leadership-MEPs relations and mutual influence, as a means to ensure discipline.

Enlargement should also be further studied as an external factor of (un)cohesion. The main challenge for the Greens/EFA group is precisely the development and success of Green parties in Eastern and Southern Europe. The group has benefited less than any other EP group from the two last enlargement rounds. Despite a strategy clearly aiming at their implantation there, the Greens have not been successful in gaining seats in the 2014 EP elections in those countries. Paradoxically, if the relative weakness of Green parties from Eastern and Southern Europe is an important challenge, it also constitutes an asset. It has helped maintain a certain level of homogeneity within the group, contributing to its cohesion, thereby allowing the group to be more influential than its numerical size would suggest.

Nathalie Brack (nbrack@ulb.ac.be) is FNRS Researcher at the Cevipol (Université libre de Bruxelles) and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. Her research interests include Euroscepticism, EU institutions, radical right, political opposition and parliamentary studies. She recently co-edited a special issue of the International Political Science Review on the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism (with Nick Startin, 2015).

Camille Kelbel (camille.kelbel@ulb.ac.be) is a PhD candidate at the ULB, taking part in the ‘PartiRep’ Interuniversity Attraction Pole. Prior to joining the ULB, Camille Kelbel was an academic assistant at the College of Europe, Bruges. Her PhD project focuses on candidate selection for European elections. More generally, her research interests lie in EU politics, political parties and elections.

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