Understanding the European parliament

Today is the last and biggest day of voting for the European parliament, which began on Thursday. A total of 751 MPs are to be elected across the 28 members of the European Union, roughly in proportion to population: 96 in Germany, 74 in France, 73 each in Britain and Italy, and so on down to just six in each of Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta.

Twenty-eight countries means 28 different – sometimes very different – party systems. Nonetheless, most of the parties that win or are likely to win seats have managed to fit themselves into one of seven parliamentary groups.

Five are ideologically straightforward: the hard left, called European United Left/Nordic Green Left; the centre-left, called the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats; the liberal/centrist group, called the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; the centre-right, called the European People’s Party; and the Greens (allied with regionalist parties), called The Greens/European Free Alliance.

Those five are currently represented (in a slightly larger parliament of 766) as follows:

Hard left              35
Centre-left       196
Liberals               83
Centre-right    273
Greens                 57

That leaves 119 members unaccounted for, with an obvious gap on the far right of the political spectrum. And here’s where it gets complicated.

There’s a group called European Conservatives and Reformists, with 57 MPs, which is basically still centre-right but more Eurosceptic in tone. Its major component is the British Conservative Party; it also includes the main centre-right parties from Poland and the Czech Republic, plus a scattering from elsewhere.

Then there’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy, the more seriously Eurosceptic group, with 31. Its strength comes mostly from Britain’s UKIP and Italy’s Northern League, with several smaller right-wing parties.

Finally there are 33 non-attached MPs, or non-inscrits. Almost all represent parties that are considered too right-wing even for EFD, including France’s National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom, Austria’s Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, Bulgaria’s Attak, and the British National Party.

It’s expected that after the election there will be a reshuffling of some sort on the far right, with a new group emerging further to the right than EFD but still not embracing the most rabid of the extremists, such as Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn (currently unrepresented, but expected to win seats this time). That may make it difficult for both EFD and ECR to survive in their current form, since a group needs to have at least 25 MPs from a total of seven different countries.

The European parliament is still evolving as an institution. Often dismissed as a meaningless talk-shop, in fact it has much the same powers as in a normal parliamentary regime, although it lacks the ability to initiate legislation. The fact that the European Commission, although responsible to parliament, is not party-based but is made up of nominees of national governments also gives the system some of the characteristics of a full separation-of-powers model.

The new office of president of the European Council (sometimes just referred to as EU president), who is not responsible to the parliament, confuses matters further. In a classic case of overuse of titles, there is also a president of the European Commission and a president of the parliament, the latter being basically the Speaker (currently Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat).

As a sign of parliament’s increasing status, however, this year the major party groups have gone into the election with conventional “leaders”, or at least candidates that they intend to put forward for president of the Commission in the event that they win the most seats. That means it’s almost certain that the job will go either to the centre-left’s Schulz or the centre-right’s Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg. There have even been televised debates held between the leaders.

But most voters don’t seem to care much for this aspect of the election. Interest is usually low; turnout has declined at every election and in 2009 was only 43%, falling as low as 19.6% in Slovakia. Those that do vote seem to treat it largely as an opportunity to express their disapproval of either (a) the European project or (b) their own national governments.

With the financial crisis having dominated the news in Europe since the last election, there’s plenty of discontent to harvest. It’s expected that parties at both ideological extremes will do well, as well as Eurosceptic parties more generally. There could be a substantial Eurosceptic bloc with little interest in actually making the parliament (or the EU itself) work, although to some extent hostility to the EU may just express itself in even lower turnout.

(With that last link, it’s worth pausing to note the remarkable quality of the BBC’s arithmetic, which after pointing out that there are 751 seats says that “If the three largest groups … were to group together they’d have close to 500 votes, giving them a comfortable two-thirds majority”.)

Interestingly enough, the EU conducts its own aggregation of opinion polls, which shows the centre-right EPP well down on 2009 but still in the lead, with a projected 217 seats against 199 for the centre-left. Despite the new partisan approach, it’s likely that for many purposes the two will continue to control parliament in an informal coalition.

But what happens further out on the fringe may give us some interesting pointers on what’s happening in European opinion.

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