Sudoku competition at the European Parliament
Who will sit where, with whom and to defend what interests? The puzzle of the populist MEPs in discovering democracy, European Parliament-style.
Around midnight on last Sunday 25 May, the results begin to appear on the screens. For this occasion the hemicycle of the European Parliament in Brussels was decked out as a gigantic press room, welcoming the media from all over Europe, both newspapers and audiovisual (broadcasters and bloggers). The spectacular screens, arranged in a 180° semicircle around the hemicycle chamber, broadcasted a continuous stream of maps with results, country by country.
Once the predictions of the first exit polls had been confirmed, the heads of all the political parties took turns to speak from the platform. When the turn of the Briton Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) came he was asked: “Mr Farage, will the results of your party have an impact on European policy?” Answer: “I don’t know if our result will make any difference to European policy but you can be absolutely certain that it will make a difference to British politics.” This disarmingly honest reply serves to sum up the results of these 2014 European elections: a rise in populist and far-right parties in Europe, encouraged in the context of voter discontent with their national governments with, at the end of the day, probably very little ambition on the part of these parties to have any impact on European politics but rather to be more influential in national politics.
This is indeed a paradox. One can even wonder in what elections the voters thought they were voting. In fact, in the end, French citizens will be represented in the European Parliament by a majority of MEPs from the French National Front which obtained 24 seats; the same is true for the British, represented by MEPs from UKIP (24 seats) and the Danish by a majority of MEPs belonging to the “Dansk Folkeparti” populist party (4 seats).
In other European countries the populist parties did not achieve a majority but did manage some pretty good results: In Italy the Five Star Movement obtained 21% of the votes and 17 seats. In Austria nearly 20% of the votes and 4 seats go to the FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – Austrian Freedom Party); in Hungary the Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary) party obtained 14% of the votes and 3 seats.
Will this sudden growth of populist and nationalist movements succeed in destabilising the European Parliament? You cannot bet on it. Besides, the main players don’t seem to be convinced themselves, as witnessed by Nigel Farage’s declaration. In fact, the key to political influence at European level lies in the capacity to form a political group. This gives an entitlement to increased resources (assistants, secretariat, offices and communications equipment). In any case, the role of an MEP is not simply to vote on texts. Before every vote in the plenary session it is these political groups that examine the reports produced by EP committees and which propose amendments.
However, in order to form a political group in the European Parliament, you have to get together a minimum of 25 MEPs from 7 different countries. Assuming they can reach this goal, these nationalist parties - with agendas that are by definition divergent - still have the task of trying to reach agreement on a programme and on common positions. In short, they have to learn to “think European” rather than “national” which would in itself constitute for them without any doubt a useful learning curve…
But the new populist parties are far from holding the majority in the European Parliament. It is in fact the pro-European parties that have won the elections with an advance for the conservative European Peoples Party (EPP - 214 seats), which is ahead of the socialists and democrats (S&D - 191 seats) and the liberals and democrats (ALDE - 64 seats). The entry of Eurosceptics into the EP will thus force the traditional parties such as EPP, the S&D and ALDE to set out their agendas clearly (pin their colours to the mast etc) but will it facilitate a coalition of the pro-European parties? In any case 376 votes are needed to obtain an absolute majority of the 751 MEPs.
Newly elected MEPs who have not yet joined any of the existing political groups make up a group of 60 MEPs and 41 non-attached Members. They will have the choice, for some of them, of sitting on the far left. Right-leaning and far right populist parties will be able to choose between the EFD (Europe of Freedom and Democracy) to which Nigel Farage belongs; the currently building coalition to be launched by Marine de Pen (FN) and Geert Wilders (PVV); or to remain among the non-attached MEPs. The hard bargaining has started and the political groups have to be formed before mid-June.
Translated from the original text in French