Monday, 19 July 2010

Northern Ireland MEPs in the Wider European Parliament

My posts on the Northern Ireland MEPs' first year in the 7th European Parliament mostly focused on highlighting what their priorities/key policy areas are with a bit of analysis (mostly a loose comparison between their performance and the "models" of the Independent and Party MEPs). However, as Grahnlaw has highlighted, the 3 NI MEPs belong either to no Europarty or to one of the smaller ones, which affects their influence and the work they do:

"Besides influence in the political group and EP bodies, the drafting of committee reports (and opinions to other committees) would in my view constitute a crucial element when evaluating the influence of an MEP. There are huge differences in importance between reports, so here qualitative analysis is called for, and it is feasible due to the low number of significant reports and opinions drafted even by a well respected and connected MEP."


So I thought I should provide a bit of wider context about the European Parliament that our MEPs are working in and how that affects their roles.

Currently the EP is centre-right leaning (the centre-right won the Euro elections before as well):

European People's Party (Centre-Right Christan Democrats/conservatives) - 265 MEPs
Socialists and Democrats (the biggest centre-left party) - 184 MEPs
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (centrist) - 85 MEPs
European Greens (plus regionalists and the Pirate Party) - 55 MEPs
European Conservatives and Reformists (the Tory party's new EP grouping & party of James Nicholson) - 54 MEPs
European United Left - Nordic Green Left (far-left & Bairbre de Brún's party) - 35 MEPs
Europe of Freedom and Democracy (far right/nationalists) - 31 MEPs
Non-Aligned (Diane Dodds is in this group) - 27 MEPs

(Total: 736 MEPs - though this could be soon increased to bring it more into line with the Lisbon Treaty amendments of 751 MEPs)

None of the NI MEPs belong to the big 3: the EPP, S&D and the Liberals (ALDE), or even the 4th biggest, the Greens. James Nicholson belongs to the 5th biggest (or 3rd smallest) and Bairbre de Brún belongs to the 6th biggest (or 2nd smallest). The number and size of the parties gives an immediate impression of how hard it would be for an independent to get elected to a prominent Parliamentary position or to get an amendment passed, as the Europarties maneuver for influence (which is why I defined the Independent and Party MEPs as I did).

Belonging to the big parties has some advantage in that MEPs can try to influence the negotiating positions of the big players. And the European Parliament is increasingly important, so it does matter - for example, the EPP proposed Barroso for re-election as Commission President. Barroso was re-elected Commission President by the EP because the EPP won the election (though I don't think there were any EPP parties running for election in the NI or the rest of the UK when the Tories and UUP pulled out of the EPP). This was also partly due to the disarray of the S&D group, who couldn't agree on a candidate.

However, as the Commission is separate from the Parliament, the Parliament works more like a multi-party version of the US House of Representatives than the UK or Irish Parliaments as it's not controlled by the executive. So the parties generally make issue-to-issue coalitions. This means that the ECR isn't necessarily a key player in a pro-government coalition that can influence policy outcomes, so it can be outmaneuvered by the big 3. Indeed, that's what the VoteWatch.eu report on the EP's first 6 months has shown: there tends to be a centre-left winning bloc on civil rights (ALDE + S&D) and a centre-right one on the economy (EPP + ALDE). The ECR hasn't been a big part of winning centre-right coalitions, but has been left out of the loop a lot - indeed the EPP hasn't been on the winning side as often as its dominance would suggest. Perhaps this will change as the term continues if the EPP and ECR draw closer together.

As there's a hierarchy of parties, the bigger parties can get their MEPs on the important rapporteur-ing jobs, etc. Now I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with voting for the smaller parties or for independents - they play a role too, and you should vote for the party you want to strengthen in Parliament or the person you want to represent you - but we should be aware that the political battle-lines in Northern Ireland do not necessarily translate into the outcome we want in the European Parliament. If we don't discuss the question of Europarties at the Euro elections, then the election debate looses a lot of its potential value - and we have to ask if we're really making the most of our vote in that situation.

Lack of discussion of Europarties during the elections is widespread throughout the EU, but Northern Ireland is a rare example of a constituency that only returned MEPs that didn't belong to any of the main parties. I'd urge people to check up on their MEP (VoteWatch.eu is a very handy tool for this), and other bloggers and Eurobloggers to check up on and write about their MEPs.

The MEPs' profiles on the Parliament website give links to the speeches, etc., that each MEP has made. I read through these for the NI MEP series (speeches in the EP are generally set at about 1-1.5 minutes long), but for other MEPs in the bigger parties, the rapporteur drafts and Committee work could/should be bigger and provide better meat for investigation. Further into the term there should be more information for a better qualitative analysis.

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