European Parliament's political diversity at risk
By Andrew Duff
The European Parliament is unlike any other. There is no executive formed by a majority party and there is no official opposition. As befits the complex diversity of the union it serves, the parliament is pluralism personified.
When I last counted there were 99 different political parties represented here, forming transnational alliances within seven political groups.
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Seven is not a large number. The system caters well enough with seven groups and a small number of non-attached members.
Parliament has done very well to cope with the enormous challenge of the recent enlargement of the union from 15 to 27 member states.
Recent adjustments to our rules of procedure have effectively reduced the risk of filibustering by militant extremists. Further modifications now in train - many of them spawned by [UK socialist MEP Richard] Corbett - will make the conduct of business on the floor of the house yet more efficient.
So why do the [conservative] PPE-ED and the [socialist] PSE insist now on cutting the number of party political groups in the European Parliament?
They propose to raise the threshold for the formation of groups in the next parliament, as from July 2009. At present Rule of Procedure 29 says that political groups shall comprise at least 20 MEPs from one fifth of the member states. The proposal from Mr Corbett is to raise these criteria to 30 and one quarter, respectively. This comes, moreover, at a time when the size of parliament is to shrink from 785 members to 751.
The effect of this measure in the present parliament would be to shut down the UEN (with only six nationalities) and the Ind Dem group (with only 23 members).
Whatever one's views about their politics, it cannot be argued that these small groups do not represent a legitimate strand of European public opinion. We live in a diverse Europe, and if the European Parliament is to be the credible forum for post-national democracy, all sorts of minority opinions have to be given effective, if proportionate representation.
It does not look well for the two large groups of conservatives and socialists to be domineering. They already have a lot of power to determine how the house is run and to influence legislation. The D'Hondt weighting system, which governs parliament's internal division of power, already gives the larger groups a disproportionate share of posts, money and speaking time.
Mr Corbett and his colleagues MM Leinen and Mendez de Vigo argue that this proposed restriction on the number of small groups is not an illiberal or anti-democratic reform.
But it does not feel like a liberal measure, and it will not look to the outside world like a step forward for democracy. So I am at a loss to know exactly what problems the proposals are meant to address.
The effect could be devastating. If small groups disappear, MEPs with widely divergent opinions will either be forced to join larger groups or to join the inglorious ranks of the "Non-Inscrits" [non-inscribed].
Either way the result will be increased political incoherence which is exactly the opposite of what is needed at a time when the parliament stands on the threshold, thanks to the Treaty of Lisbon, of assuming very important new responsibilities over a wide range of issues.
The leaders of the five smaller groups (ALDE, UEN, Greens/EFA, GUE/NGL and Ind Dem) have written to [conservative and socialist group leaders] Daul and Schultz to register their objection to the unfortunate proposal of the Constitutional Affairs Committee.
Their letter should be read, reflected upon - and answered with a decision to sustain parliament's pluralism by rejecting my committee's proposal.
Andrew Duff is spokesman on constitutional affairs for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).