When is a group not a group?
Leading parties in the European Parliament want to tighten the rules on forming a group in the assembly in a move that anti-establishment politicians say is designed to deprive them of cash and influence.
Defenders of the proposal — put forward by the Socialists — say it is meant to end “fake groups” of parties that club together to get money and privileges from the Parliament but don’t vote together — or even meet up.
MEPs will vote Thursday on the measure, which could be significant in determining who wields power in the legislature, particularly in the next parliamentary term following May’s EU election.
The proposal is backed by leaders of the three biggest groups in the Parliament — the center-right European People’s Party, the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and the liberal ALDE. Ranged against it are smaller parties who would not normally be allies — Greens, Euroskeptics and populists. Some have threatened to take the measure to the European Court of Justice.
Under the measure — based on a parliamentary amendment drafted by German Social Democrat Jo Leinen and lawmakers from ALDE and the EPP — MEPs would be able to judge whether members of a group have sufficient “political affinity” if there is “manifest evidence that this affinity may not exist.”
“Democracy has always relied on protecting the rights of the opposition, primarily the right to propose and defend its own political alternative” — Fabio Massimo Castaldo, MEP from Italy’s 5Star Movement
Under Parliament rules, a political group needs 25 members, and they must come from at least a quarter of the EU’s member countries. The Parliament distributes 10 percent of its party financing equally among these groups. The remaining 90 percent is distributed according to each party’s share of MEPs. Big groups often get the most influential committee chair positions and more vice-president positions than smaller groups.
Fabio Massimo Castaldo, an MEP from Italy’s 5Star Movement, said the proposal reflected the “dictatorship of the majority,” which could “decide arbitrarily if it keeps alive or not political groups that are not aligned with the mainstream.”
“Democracy has always relied on protecting the rights of the opposition, primarily the right to propose and defend its own political alternative,” added Castaldo, who is also one of the Parliament’s vice-presidents.
The proposal offers neither a definition of “affinity,” nor any “objective parameter” on which to reach a decision, Castaldo complained.
The group to which Castaldo belongs, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, is precisely the kind of group Leinen and others have in their sights.
It is composed overwhelmingly of MEPs from the 5Stars and Britain’s UKIP. In 2016, the group got almost €3 million in funding from the Parliament, according to figures issued by the chamber.
But “they have not held political meetings together and voted against each other in a majority of cases,” Leinen said. “It is our duty to prohibit the misuse of taxpayers’ money.”
Both UKIP and the 5Stars present themselves as anti-establishment parties but there is much that divides them. In April 2015, Vote Watch, a service that provides analysis based on official data, found they had agreed with each other on only 27 percent of European Parliament votes. They voted differently, for example, on key counter-terrorism measures like the creation of the Passenger Name Record (PNR), which collects information provided by passengers on international flights.
The new proposal is contained in an amendment to a report drafted by British Labour MEP Richard Corbett revising the Parliament’s rules of procedure.
Leinen’s amendment was initially stronger and more detailed. But he and his collaborators diluted the proposal with the aim of winning support from ALDE and the Greens. Liberal leaders are now on board but the Greens are still not convinced.
“We can ask ourselves questions about coherence inside groups,” said Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the Greens group. “But the S&D’s response to that creates more problems than it resolves.”