Saturday

13th Aug 2022

Opinion

Parliament rules on political groups need tidying up

Discussions on the possible revision of the Parliament's rules on the formation of political groups proved to be highly controversial in today's vote in the Constitutional Affairs committee.

This is unsurprising, since it has long been a sensitive topic, even before direct elections were introduced in 1979.

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I believe that the debate on where to set the limits on forming a political group is a legitimate one. The constitution of a Group confers considerable resources (staff, money and procedural privileges) on those concerned, yet our current rules are far more permissive than in most other parliaments.

The antics of the short-lived Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group, where a rag-bag of fascists, holocaust deniers and xenophobes cobbled together 20 members, and became eligible for €1 million a year from the Parliament, only for the group to collapse several months later when some inflammatory comments made by Alessandra Mussolini MEP led to the Romanian delegation walking out, amply demonstrated the need to re-examine the rule.

From twenty to thirty MEPs

Our debate has centred around three points: the number of members required to form a Group, the number of Member States required, and how to resolve the status of a Group that, after its creation, falls back just below the threshold.

At present, Parliament's Rules of Procedure state that political groups must consist of at least 20 MEPs representing five or more Member States.

This amounts to a threshold of 2.5% of the Parliament's MEPs. In 21 of the 25 national parliaments which have rules on political groups, a higher threshold is required in at least one parliamentary chamber.

I proposed that the minimum be increased from twenty to thirty. In the event of the successful ratification of the Lisbon Treaty this would amount to 4% of the MEPs in Parliament of 750 members plus the President - still lower than the Europe-wide average for national parliaments.

I also proposed to increase the threshold of member states from at least one fifth to one quarter, bringing it into line with the existing legislation on European political parties.

These proposals were rejected by a majority of one at committee stage (at the start of the vote when not all members had arrived) but are likely to come back in plenary.

Opponents claim that these proposed reforms are, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, would destroy dissent in the Parliament, with many members being denied a democratic right to be part of a political group of their choosing, forced either to sit as non-attached members or to join another group, making these groups more unwieldy and ideologically incoherent. This is an unworthy accusation.

No group will be wiped out

Firstly, no group will be wiped out as a result of this report, since the rule change will only come into force after the 2009 European elections.

The IND-DEM feels threatened, yet they are hoping to have well over 30 seats after the next elections, whereas I hope that they fall below 20 - either way, the rule change would not make the difference.

Moreover, other critics seem to imply that if an MEP is not part of a political group, he or she does not exist. This is nonsense, as the rules protect the rights of all individual members to speak, ask questions and all the other privileges traditionally conferred upon parliamentarians.

Let us be clear that these proposals are not an attempt to manipulate the Parliament's rules in a bid to strengthen the hand of the two largest political groups.

Vulnerable to political pressure

Indeed, my report includes reforms that would actually strengthen the position of smaller groups.

For example, it takes on board a suggestion made by Jens-Peter Bonde, former Co-President of the IND-DEM group, that should help solve the problem that currently exists whereby a group that is created with just enough members to reach the threshold is then extremely vulnerable to political pressure from a small group of its own members - or even a single member - who can threaten to leave, and thereby destroy the group, unless it gets its way on a particular matter.

My proposals would allow a group that slipped below the threshold to continue to exist for up to two years.

During the discussions in committee several members asked why I proposed the change at all.

Well, the fact is that times change and the Parliament's rule book must adapt to the new conditions.

The current rule on political groups was adopted when the Parliament had 626 members, more than 20% fewer MEPs than it will have in the event of the successful ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

It is appropriate to make revisions. But claims that it will stifle diversity are wide of the mark.

On the contrary, the spirited discussions in our committee (which will, no doubt, be replicated in plenary) demonstrate the wealth of diversity and debate in our Parliament.

This is not under threat. The proposals in my report should help to clarify the status of political groups without jeopardising political diversity within the Parliament.

The author is a UK Labour MEP

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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