As the European Parliament election nears, Vote Watch Europe looks at what and how the MEPs voted on behalf of their constituents in the past five years.
Three months from now, many MEPs will try to keep their job by asking the EU citizens to give them another chance to move the EU forward. VoteWatch Europe will provide the public with a series of reports that reveal what and how the MEPs decided in these five years on behalf of half-a-billion citizens. Today, we look at the big numbers.
Throughout these five years of the legislature, the European Parliament has hosted around 9,000 roll-call votes – these include separate votes on key paragraphs and amendments and are the “transparent votes”, in which the public can see which way each Member of the Parliament voted. At VoteWatch we have collected a database of how each MEP voted on each of these 9.000 decisions, and the expertise to interpret the context and the meaning.
This impressive amount is an increase of almost 50% compared to the previous parliamentary term, which signals a substantial increase in transparency of decision-making at the level of the plenary. On the downside, MEPs decided that some key votes in the Parliament’s plenary should remain opaque to the public. Among these, there is the ultra-important vote for the election of the President of the European Commission, which will be cast in just a few months (in July). A couple of years ago, MEPs had to answer the question whether the public should know who supports the person proposed as President of the European Executive, and a majority of them said “no”. You can check which MEPs said “no” and which said “yes” at this link.
MEPs have also started to use transparent votes in the committees, although their use is much rarer and the documents’ format in which the information is published, as well as the time lag (between the time of the vote and the time this is made available to the public), are still far from satisfactory for a democratically-elected body.
Interestingly, at the level of the plenary, the policy area with the biggest number of transparent votes has been “the budget of the EU”, where in more than 1500 decisions we can find how each MEP voted. Second to that comes, rather surprisingly, foreign and security policy, with over 1200 transparent votes, while on third spot we have environment and public health, with over 750 transparent votes.
What has been the turnout in EP’s votes?
In the EP’s plenary, the average turnout has been of 657 MEPs (out of 751). We recorded a turnout of over 700 MEPs in roughly 1 out of 8 votes (1100 out of 9000). At the opposite end, there were only 8% of decisions that were made by fewer than 600 MEPs. Overall, the turnout is impressively high, taking into account that MEPs have to travel back and forth between Brussels/Strasbourg and their constituencies all across the continent on a weekly basis.
To be precise, the high turnout in votes is also explained by the fact that the votes are concentrated in special voting sessions in the middle of the day, right before lunch. Notably, it is rather rare to see more than a hundred or a couple of hundred MEPs in the chamber when there are debates, which indicates that MEPs are much more interested in taking part in votes than listening to each other’s’ speeches. This is one of the reasons for which at VoteWatch we ascertain that those who want to understand what is important in the Parliament’s work, which MEPs are most influential among their peers and which are decisive in swinging a decision, need to pay much more attention to the dynamics of the votes rather than to the speeches of politicians – after all, MEPs themselves have figured this out, so why not do what the insiders do?
What have been the most attended votes?
The subject which has drawn the biggest number of MEPs to the votes has been, not surprisingly, migration. For example, the most attended vote in the whole term was held on April 12, 2016, which brought together 717 MEPs and discussed the migration situation in the Mediterranean and the adoption of measures to manage migratory flows.
The second and third most popular votes, with 715 MEPs taking part, dealt with policies to fight youth unemployment and to breed animals and their germinal products. The fourth most popular vote served to review the uses of the principle of subsidiarity within the Union and had a participation of 714. Finally, the fifth, which brought together 713 MEPs, addressed the role of intercultural dialogue, cultural diversity and education in promoting EU fundamental values.
Who decided the outcome of the votes?
The frequency of the “grand coalition” (EPP+S&D) has slightly increased in this parliamentary term. In fact, it has gradually increased over the past 3 EP terms, while the size of the EPP and S&D have decreased, which seems to indicate that the smaller these groups are, the more they are “forced” to work together. If this trend continues, then we are likely to see an even stronger cooperation between them in the next term, when it seems it will be for the first time when their combined forces would dip below the 50% of seats critical level.
From a different perspective, one can also argue that the correlation goes the other way around: the more these groups cooperate in the EP and “kill off” the debate, the more the other groups have a chance of profiling themselves to the public as the alternative, as the “real opposition”, which would explain their substantial growth over the years and the shrinking of the EPP and S&D. If this is the real correlation and the “grand coalition” continues in the next EP, then by 2024 we may see a completely reshaped political rainbow across the continent, similar to the models in France, Italy and/or Spain where traditional parties have lost or are losing control after decades.
The grand coalition decided roughly 74% of votes in this EP term, while in the remaining 26% the EPP and S&D voted against each other. In these 26% of decisions the remaining political groups (as well as the defections within the two big groups) have made the difference.
More precisely, in 816 votes (roughly one out of ten) the majority was less than 50 votes, which means that if 26 MEPs had voted the other way, the result of the vote would have also changed. Many tight votes took place on environmental policy that impacts on industry, for example the vote to consider “the establishment of an EU level surveillance authority for the automotive sector”, which was approved by a majority of only 1 vote (329 vs. 328, voted on 27.10.2015). In this case, one MEP from the ECR group who voted alongside the leftist groups effectively decided the outcome of the vote.
Many tight votes also took place in areas such as migration, trade policy or women’s rights, but also when it comes to splitting and managing taxpayers’ money, including the part of the budget that is used to cover the salaries and expenses of the MEPs themselves. In total, in almost 200 votes the majority was of less than 10 Members.
The next EP will be much more fragmented than the current one, ie. the smaller groups will increase in size and in power, being able to influence more votes. As a result, we can expect that an increasing number of votes will be decided by smaller majorities. This also means that the leverage of the rapporteurs and of the leaders of the groups may suffer, while the individual MEPs would have more freedom, or margin for maneuver. Against this background of increased unpredictability, the need to treat each MEP as an influencer and to find the hidden potential allies becomes evident.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on Vote Watch Europe. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)