What could change in the composition of the European Parliament? Should Georgia be worried?

Ketevan Goletiani*

Citizens of the 27 EU member states will elect a new European Parliament in 2019. Internal tensions within the European Union and Brexit will influence these elections, as will turbulence on the international stage and migration-related and social challenges, which will result in an increase in fear, a spike in identitarian movement activity and populism. All these developments lead to a rise in populist and radical political groups that oppose European integration and, more generally, doubt the European project. This means it is unlikely that the EP elected in May will resemble the current one.

The future of the European Parliament can affect the fate of the EU’s internal and external policies. Nowadays, Georgia has valid support from the EU, which is demonstrated by the resolutions/reports that have been adopted and the strong cooperation between the two sides. For instance, on November 14 the European Parliament adopted the Report on the Implementation of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, which gives an overall positive assessment of the progress made by Georgia.  It welcomes the reforms in line with the AA, praises the cross-party consensus on the European agenda and reiterates the European Parliament’s call for an ‘Eastern Partnership+’ policy to unlock additional perspectives.[1] Georgia’s future political, economic and social development is largely dependent on European integration. Therefore, when the Union is facing an increase in Eurosceptic MPs, it is important to look at who might challenge the process of European integration and how, if at all, that might affect EU’s relations with Georgia.


The role of the European Parliament in EU’s foreign policy

The first question that needs to be addressed is if Parliament, a particular institutional part of the state-like European Union, qualifies as a genuine actor in EU foreign policy and on the international scene. The simple answer is yes.

The main decision-makers in EU’s Foreign & Security policy are the European Council, the High Representative of the Union and the European Commission.[2] Traditionally, foreign policy has been dominated by member states. The 2009 Lisbon Treaty stipulated a greater role for the EP in external actions overall, however, by expanding parliamentary legitimacy and oversight: parliamentary consent is required for the accession of a new member state to the EU. Although formally Parliament is only entitled to approve or reject accession, it still enjoys tremendous impact on both the internal and external conditions of the enlargement process. According to the former Chair of the EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, this is not exercised formally and is not visible in any legal process. Rather Parliament’s position is taken on board informally by the Council and Commission.[3] Any international agreement by the EU also requires Parliament’s consent. Parliament has rarely rejected consent to an international agreement but it has delayed approval in order to ensure its positions are taken into account in the final text of the agreement.  Another important instrument of the EP is parliamentary resolutions, which formulate Parliament’s position and usually refer to issues such as human rights, democracy, good governance, etc. For example, the EU adopting the Resolution on Georgia’s Breakaway Regions 10 Years after the War with Russia had significant importance as it demonstrated the Union’s strong support for country’s sovereignty and condemnation of the Russian occupation.  The same can be said about the recently adopted report on the implementation of the AA between the EU and Georgia, which appraises the achievements made by Georgia and notes EU’s strong commitment to its closet Eastern partners.[4] On Ukraine and Russia, Parliament was at the forefront of the EU’s visibility, with senior MEPs traveling to Kiev and calling for targeted sanctions as well as providing institutional support for Ukraine. The EU Parliament has shown that it can speak up and urge EU member states and institutions to act when they drag their feet.[5] Unlike in national legislations, where the traditional government-parliament structure means the parliamentary majority normally tends to limit itself to pursuing policy positions favoured by its government, MEPs have the opportunity to take foreign policy positions/views freely without being politically obliged to support the position of the executive organs. Hence, Parliament can keep topics high on the agenda and bring the attention of the European community to a particular issue, such as EU’s neighbouring policy, including relations with Georgia. Finally, the European Parliament elects the Commission and its President and can potentially dismiss both. Based on this, it seems likely that the composition of the future European Parliament will have consequences on the future functioning of the Union and its foreign policy stances.[6]


The Current and the Potential Composition of the EP

The approximately 500 million people living in the 28 member states are currently represented by 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) After the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the number of MEPs will fall to 705. [7]

Currently the center-right, pro-European Group of the European People’s Party (EPP) dominates Parliament with 219 seats; the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) comes second with 187 seats; right-wing eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) has 73 seats; the Group of Alliance and Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) makes up 68 seats; the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance has 52 seats; the socialist European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) has 51 MEPs; the EFDD (which includes the British UKIP party and the Five Star Movement) currently has 45 members; and the ENF (which includes Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party and Matteo Salvini’s Lega party) have 35 seats, making it the smallest group in the EP. 21 MEPs are non-attached. 

Center and center-right political groups make up the majority in Parliament. Stable centre-right majorities form on economic issues, and stable center-left majorities form on social issues, with variable alliances between the two biggest groups and the Liberals and Greens. A majority of MEPs from both EPP and S&D as well as ALDE share a pro-European attitude and support a stronger EU and its closer cooperation with EaP countries. The biggest opposition to the EU integration process comes from the EFDD, ENF and non-attached members, as well as GUE/NGL although the latter claims to be generally supportive of EU integration. If we look at voting patterns, 171 MEPs from the EPP supported the Association Agreement with Georgia; none of them voted against it. The agreement received 59 votes from ALDE and 161 from S&D. No MEPs from GUE-NGL supported the resolution: 19 were against and 26 abstained. Forty NI MEPs voted against and only two voted in favour. Twenty-one MEPs from EFDD voted against it. [8] In October 2018, when the EP adopted the Draft Report on the Implementation of the Association Agreement with Georgia, out of the seven MEPs who voted against it, four were from GUE/NGL, one from ENF and two were non-affiliated. [9]

The rise of radical groups from both the right and left of the political spectrum has been a growing concern in Brussels and other key EU capitals.  In the wake of Brexit and some electoral successes at the national level in Italy and Austria, for example, it might seem like this is the best opportunity radical groups may ever get to  come to power at the European level,  but their success is still unlikely. First, due to its strong voter support, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) is likely to remain the dominant political force in the chamber. Secondly, the departure of British MEPs from the conservative and UKIP parties will weaken the nationalist camp, even if this departure will be offset by the arrival of a large number of Lega Nord MPs from Italy (currently 28 seats), as well as Alternative for Germany (AfD) MPs from Germany (15 seats).[10]  The loss of 18 British MEPs from the ECR group will make a big difference to the party’s strategy and could threaten its very existence. In addition, it is not likely that these political parties, which have different positions on the Euro, migration, foreign and internal policy, will work together or form a coherent unit. All signs point to these parties having more differences than similarities.[11] For example, at present, the ENF is primarily pro-Russian due to the large number of western European members. As such, the western right prefers to find pro-Putin allies while the eastern right is generally anti-Russia. They could, however, form an “against” bloc, which has sometimes obliged other groups to form a coalition since 2014. The challenging process of Britain’s departure and the potential for a hard Brexit might be making the idea of leaving the EU club less attractive for some European voters. Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former political strategist, set up the Movement, an alliance of right-wing populist parties with the purpose of contesting the European elections. However, the Movement has so far been snubbed by the Alternative for Germany[12], Freedom Party of Austria[13] and UKIP.[14]

Fleishman Hillard, the leading EU government relations, public affairs and communications consultancy in Brussels, made a projection on the next mandate using data from public opinion polls on national parties across EU countries as a proxy for votes for parties in the European Parliament. [15] According to that the results, center-ground parties will remain the dominant presence in Parliament although they will lose some seats. ENF could progress from 35 to 59 members, EFDD from 45 to 53, and ECR could slip from 71 to 48, for a total of 160 members across the three groups, up from 151.

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