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Opinion What does the rise of anti-EU MEPs mean for European politics?

For small member states like Ireland, the change in Parliament will bring many challenges…

EUROPEANS HAVE ELECTED the most fragmented European Parliament seen to date – a move which will have a lasting and profound effect on how smaller member states, including Ireland, will generate business in Europe for the next five years.

A growing weariness towards austerity measures and government bailouts, in addition to an anti-politics mood among many of the electorate, formed the background to this year’s European elections. These factors combined represented a major challenge for the mainstream parties to overcome. Centre parties have seen their representation shrink while there is an increase in numbers of extremist parties of the left and right, along with a wide variety of populist and anti-EU parties.

What does it mean for European politics?

Traditionally the European Parliament has been dominated by the two main political groupings – the right of centre European People’s Party (EPP) and the left of centre Social Democrats, currently known as the S&D group.

In the outgoing Parliament they had together some 60% of the seats. Behind them came the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) with almost 11%. Together these three groups could comfortably drive forward the agenda. Notably, in the new Parliament their influence will be reduced to 62% for all three groups combined.

At key stages in the legislative and other procedures, the European Parliament generally has to muster an absolute majority 376 votes (50%+1 MEPs) to get its position approved. However neither the two biggest groups can now come close to that number on their own. Alliances could now be formed, with S&D, the Greens and the United Left group (GUE), but it would not be enough.

The EPP has much less room for manoeuvre to its right. The likelihood, therefore, is that there will need to be a grand coalition between the EPP and S&D in order for business to progress. Failure to achieve that could reduce the European Parliament to impotency, but such a coalition will also mean that controversial measures are unlikely to be approved.

The new Parliament will probably try to avoid, if possible, the need for absolute majority of votes, for example it is possible for legislation to be agreed at first reading which only requires a simple majority. That means that anyone trying to influence the Parliament’s position will need to get their arguments across at the earliest opportunity in the process. The indifference of a fifth of the Parliament towards the legislative process will also mean more work being done by fewer people. This will also have a notable impact on lobbying.

Whatever these events mean for the body politic as a whole, they have great significance for the future workings of the European Parliament. The European Parliament is now set for a grand coalition but the notable increase in numbers of extremist parties of the left and right, along with a wide variety of populist and anti-EU parties will see the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right European People Party forced into cooperation.

European Parliament works on the basis of building consensus and cooperation amongst MEPs, unlike some national parliaments such as Ireland and the UK there is no whip system. MEPs cannot be forced by their political grouping to adopt a position. This newly-elected Parliament will be home to a strong nationalist movement and will undoubtedly harbour anti-EU feelings pulling focus away from the desired common EU approach to national advancement; simply put, anti-EU parties may stall progress and delay consensus.

What does this mean for Ireland?

For Ireland, and small member states like Ireland, the change in Parliament will bring many challenges. With a European Parliament now challenged by rising nationalism, Ireland’s corporate tax rate and desirable position for international headquarters may be once again cast into the spotlight, questioning Ireland’s favourable direct foreign investment position.

Additionally, international trade is set to feature strongly on the agenda of the new Parliamentary term, since the Lisbon Treaty granted the European Parliament enhanced powers in the shaping of the EU’s international trade policy.

In effect, the European Commission and member states cannot ratify a trade agreement without the consent of the European Parliament. This will be an important consideration to bear in mind in the context of current EU negotiations on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Mercosur and the US (TTIP).

Both of these agreements have the potential to bring huge benefits to the EU economy but there are important domestic interests to safeguard in these negotiations, eg the EU (and Irish) agri-food sector and sensitive commercial products such as beef/dairy.

MEPs will have a unique and important role to play in ensuring that domestic interests are protected and the European Parliament’s Trade Committee will take on a renewed importance in this regard.

Overall, these elections have ushered a very uncertain period in the development of the EU. In particular the European Parliament could find itself unable to properly exercise the greatly enhanced powers it received under the Lisbon Treaty.

Gary Titley is a seasoned former European legislator and well-known authority on EU foreign and security policy. He was first elected to the European Parliament in 1989 and went on to serve four consecutive terms. During this time Gary served as the UK Labour Party’s leader in the EP and also as a member of the party’s National Executive. He is currently head of European Legislative Affairs in Hume Brophy.

Gary will be speaking at a Post-EU Election Breakfast Briefing hosted by Hume Brophy on Thursday 29 May (7.45am registration) at the Davenport Hotel, Merrion Street Lower, Dublin 2. 

Read: UKIP on clear lead in Britain as Eurosceptics clear up across EU

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