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10th Dec 2016

Focus

Main EP groups debate closer co-operation, isolating far-right

  • "We are avoiding the word coalition," said the EPP's Huebner (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The European Parliament's two biggest groups are locked in talks about how to work more closely together in the new legislature - including setting up "structures" for co-operation.

While the centre-right (EPP) and centre-left (S&D) have often formed a loose coalition in the past, the incoming parliament – where neither parties on the left or the right side of the house can muster a majority – makes it a necessity.

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"There is no other option but to work closely together," said Polish centre-right MEP Danuta Huebner on Wednesday (11 June) at the Brussels-based CEPS think tank.

She said that discussions in her group (the biggest, with 221 of 751 MEPs) had shown that most deputies want to see some sort of "standing arrangement" made with the S&D (189 MEPs) group.

"Because there might be situations where we will need a place where people will meet when urgent things emerge. So I think there will be an effort to build some kind of structure for this cooperation," Huebner added.

Richard Corbett, a British Labour MEP, said the results of the May EU vote, which saw a rise in the number of eurosceptic and "anti-system" deputies, will mean co-operation between the two groups will be "reinforced".

"It's not like at the national level where you sign a coalition agreement with programmes. It's a series of informal understandings and they are negotiated when it comes to legislation day in day out over the whole five years," he continued.

But both camps are struggling to find a way of working closely together while retaining their political identity, with the rise of anti-establishment parties largely seen as due to national mainstream parties barely differing from one another.

"I can imagine that political groups will try to identify not only the black lines in the sense of programmes but also the red lines in the sense of what we cannot accept from the Socialists' approach," said Huebner referring to how the two sides will try to keep a sense of political self.

The Polish deputy, a former EU commissioner, said the other main danger was that the drive to find a "compromise almost at all price" on the important issues could lead to "lowest common denominator" agreements.

The difficulty in finding majorities will mean that major controversial issues – such as the proposed EU-US free trade agreement or the longterm EU budget – have a real risk of being voted down by the EP.

Less transparent

Andreas Maurer, a political science professor at the University of Innsbruck, said the realities of the incoming parliament means it is likely it will rely more strongly on untransparent ways of law-making.

He referred to trialogues (informal talks between the three main EU institutions) to make legislative deals, a system he called “extremely undemocratic”.

"The more powerful the European Parliament wants to be, the more active-ness it needs to develop. That means it will be less politicised. Both things move to less transparency,” said Maurer.

Meanwhile, the general feeling in the parliament is that the increased number of far-right or anti-EU deputies will not hinder the work of the EP, though their voice will become more “organised” if they manage to form a group.

If they do manage this step, moves are already afoot to isolate the faction.

"The mainstream political groups are already discussing ways of isolating them in the parliament," said Corbett.

Isolation

He noted that the way political groups share out posts – such as committee chairs or parliament vice-presidents – is the result of a “gentleman’s agreement”.

Mainstream groups could either exclude a far-right group from this distribution or agree the share-out but vote against a far-candidate when it comes to election to the post.

“I am quite sure that a far-right group would be treated in that way,” said Corbett.

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