Party games: the Parliament and its post-election musical chairs

Six months away from the European Parliament elections, the first serious set of predictions are being made.

Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute, a Paris-based think-tank, has recently published a must-read policy paper in which it predicts that the centre-left Socialists & Democrats Group (S&D) will oust the centre-right European People’s Party Group (EPP) as the largest group in the new Parliament.

And in February, Burson-Marsteller Brussels will support the launch – as part of Europe Decides – of PollWatch, a VoteWatch Europe project that will take an in-depth and regular look at opinion polls and the likely composition of the new assembly.

However, the election results are only part of the story. Post-election horse-trading and haggling plays a key role in determining the final composition of the groups and – significantly this time – the creation of a majority to back the appointment of a new President of the European Commission.

Political positioning and the distribution of key roles (such as committee chairs or group spokespeople) may help sway the decisions of national party delegations on where to sit.

Here’s our first look at how the groups may shape up after the elections:

EPP  S&D  ALDE  G/EFA  ECR  EFD  GUE/NGL (click the links to skip to the section of your choice)

Group of the European People’s Party  EPP

The EPP Group is the currently biggest in the Parliament, and many of its member parties are also in power at a national level.

This ‘incumbency problem’ is likely to trigger a drop in support, notably in Poland, Spain and Italy, which could have a major impact on EPP Group’s numerical strength after the election and, as the Notre Europe paper suggests, an expected strong showing for the German Christian Democrats is unlikely to compensate for these losses.

The creation of the pro-EU ‘The Europeans’ list in France – bringing together the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI, whose MEPs currently sit in the EPP Group) and the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem, represented in the Liberal ALDE Group) – presents a different type of challenge.

Where ‘The Europeans’ sit could determine whether the EPP or S&D is the largest group – and therefore which party’s ‘common candidate’ has the moral right to be frontrunner for the Commission presidency. They could be the ‘kingmakers’.

To its advantage, the EPP and its parliamentary group have always had broad bases, bringing together conservatives, Christian Democrats and other right-of-centre groups. Past deals with the British Conservatives show the flexibility – and the rewards in terms of positions and funding – that the EPP Group is prepared to offer.

Although the Tories have burnt their bridges, this flexibility on the part of the EPP Group could be a decisive factor with other parties after the election.


Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats S&D

The S&D Group should benefit from the centre-right’s ‘incumbency problem’, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. A voter backlash may hit in the many countries where socialists and social democrats participate in national governments.

Those most at risk include the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), which is likely to be decimated in Greece. The German Social Democrats may suffer electorally from their probable participation in a grand coalition (the result of a ballot among SPD members should be known on 14-15 December).

While the French Socialists may perform better than in 2009, they start from a low base and are unlikely to make significant gains. The British Labour Party may be the big winner – with the possibility of the UK delegation even doubling – and Labour could even stand a chance of providing the S&D Group leader (probably the only leading EU position that could be occupied by a British national).

Keen to build a ‘progressive majority’, the S&D Group and the Party of European Socialists (PES) has been looking for support beyond their current member parties.

The Leader of the S&D Group, Hannes Swoboda, for example, has held talks with the head of the Coalition of the Radical Left – Unitary Social Front (Syriza), Alexis Tsipras, and while Syriza is unlikely to join the S&D Group, its support may help build a left-of-centre coalition that backs Martin Schulz for the Commission presidency and cooperates on legislative issues.

Schulz’s nomination by Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) – not a formal member of the PES – would seem to cement the party’s place in the S&D Group.

Polish social democratic MEP Marek Siwiec has joined ‘Your Movement’ in Poland, a party led by Janusz Palikot, who achieved success in the 2011 Polish election. Bringing ‘Your Movement’ into the S&D Group could significantly boost the S&D Group’s Polish contingent. Positive Slovenia (PS) may be wooed by the S&D Group (although the ALDE Group would appear to be a more likely destination).

The key to the S&D Group becoming the Parliament’s largest gathering may be its flexibility towards parties outside the traditional socialist and social democratic family. We may even see this reflected in a greater emphasis being placed on the ‘Progressive Alliance’ part of the Group’s lengthy name.


Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe ALDE

The Liberals face a tough election: the German Free Democratic Party (FDP) and British Liberal Democrats delegations, which currently form nearly 30 per cent of the Group’s total membership, are likely to return only a handful of MEPs each. The choice of group by France’s ‘The Europeans’ will also be a key factor in the ALDE Group’s strength.

The Liberals may pick up new support from smaller parties (such as Positive Slovenia) but they also need to secure the backing of restless MEPs from current Liberal parties. The Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is increasingly Eurosceptic, with members requesting the repatriation of powers and former interim party chair Mark Verheijen saying that the ALDE Group leader, Guy Verhofstadt, is more dangerous for Europe than Marine Le Pen.

It is unlikely that VVD MEPs would leave the ALDE Group, but they may demand changes in policies and personnel. The FDP may also back a more cautious line on European integration.

The presence of European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) MEP Derk Jan Eppink on the VVD candidates list, and the close ties between the Dutch VVD prime minister Mark Rutte and his British Conservative counterpart David Cameron, probably present enough of a concern for the VVD to wring concessions out of the ALDE Group leadership.

As ALDE Party President Graham Watson said ahead of the ALDE Congress in London, “In the past the dividing line within the liberal family has tended to be whether you were an economic liberal or social liberal… The major dividing line today is over how fast you want to build Europe”.


Group of the Greens / European Free Alliance G/EFA

The Greens/EFA Group is likely to be hit by losses for the French Ecologists and German Greens in comparison to their success in 2009.

Dissatisfaction with EU national governments may see a rise in the vote for Green alternative and separatist parties, particularly in Belgium, where the likely success of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) in federal and regional elections on 25 May will probably help boost support for the party in the European Parliament election that will be held on the same day.

However, the N-VA – which is separatist, but more rightist in its political programme – has never been a very natural fit for the Greens/EFA Group. The ECR Group may be suitors for the NVA, even though the Flemish party is more pro-EU than other parties in the Conservative group.

A potential bright spot for the Greens/EFA Group is the likely increase in support for Pirate parties.

Like for the Pirates, the Group could also be the most natural home for MEPs from Italy’s Five-Star Movement (M5S), led by Beppe Grillo. Notre Europe predicts that Grillo’s party will win 15-20 MEPs – which would be a major boost to the Greens/EFA Group.


European Conservatives and Reformists Group ECR

The ECR Group – like the ALDE Group – face a make-or-break election. Two of the Group’s main three parties – the British Conservatives and Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS) – are set to lose seats. The third – Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) will probably gain support.

Holding onto the support of the handful of other parties and MEPs that help the Group secure its official status will be of primary importance – especially as some members and parties (such as Derk Jan Eppink of the Dedecker List in Belgium) will depart.

The ECR Group will look to profit from a wave of support for moderate Eurosceptic parties, such the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The Flemish N-VA and the Dutch VVD are other possible targets for membership, with varying levels of probability of them joining.

The ECR Group could, as a result, become a much more diverse set of MEPs, less dominated by the British Conservatives.


Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group EFD

The EFD Group could very well be left out in the cold in the new parliament, unable to gather enough members and/or parties to form an official faction.

While the UK Independence Party (Ukip) of the Group’s current leader, Nigel Farage, is likely to make some gains, other parties in the Group may lose support to more extreme anti-EU parties or decide to join a new group proposed by Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front (FN) and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV).

MEPs from Italy’s Northern League (LN) may hook up with Le Pen and Wilders , a move inspired in part by Farage’s condemnation of racist remarks by an LN MEP. The Finns Party (PS) and Sweden Democrats may also join the new far-right group.

Farage may be left in the middle, caught between extremist anti-EU parties and the more mainstream Eurosceptics in the ECR Group. The widely-expected 2014 European Parliament election victory for Ukip in the UK could, in the end, turn out to be a pyrrhic one.


Confederal Group of the European United Left / Nordic Green Left GUE/NGL

The GUE/NGL Group is likely to profit from a rise in support for the United Left (IU) in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and possibly The Left (Linke) in Germany and radical left-wing groups in France.

Indeed, while much of the focus of media attention is on the anti-EU or anti-establishment parties on the political right, some predictions suggest that those on the left will fare even better.

Notre Europe predicts that the GUE/NGL Group will pick up 47 seats, making it the fifth-largest group in the Parliament, ahead of the Greens/EFA Group.

Whether this happens depends much on the post-election negotiations. With around 15% of all MEPs likely to come from currently non-aligned parties, it is clear that the election results are only the beginning, and that a whole series of party games will follow.