European Union Resource Area

by Palgrave Macmillan

The New Political Balance-of-Power in the European Union

by Simon Hix
Professor of European and Comparative Politics, LSE

 Table 1. Seats in the European Parliament, July 2004

Party group

Total
seats

EPP-ED

PES

ALDE

EUL/NGL

G/EFA

IND/DEM

UEN

na

Austria

6

7

2

3

18

Belgium

6

7

6

2

3

24

Cyprus

3

1

2

6

Czech Republic

14

2

6

1

1

24

Denmark

1

5

4

1

1

1

1

14

Estonia

1

3

2

6

Finland

4

3

5

1

1

14

France

17

31

11

6

3

3

7

78

Germany

49

23

7

13

7

99

Greece

11

8

4

1

24

Hungary

13

9

2

24

Ireland

5

1

1

1

1

4

13

Italy

24

16

12

2

7

4

9

4

78

Latvia

3

1

1

4

9

Lithuania

2

2

7

2

13

Luxembourg

3

1

1

1

6

Malta

2

3

5

Netherlands

7

7

5

4

2

2

27

Poland

19

8

4

10

7

6

54

Portugal

9

12

3

24

Slovakia

8

3

3

14

Slovenia

4

1

2

7

Spain

24

24

2

3

1

54

Sweden

5

5

3

1

2

3

19

United Kingdom

28

19

12

5

1

11

2

78

Total

268

200

88

42

41

37

27

29

732

% of seats

36.6

27.3

12.0

5.7

5.6

5.1

3.7

4.0

100.0

Notes:   
EPP-ED = European People's Party-European Democrats (Christian democrat/conservative)
PES = Party of European Socialists (social democrat)
ALDE = Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (liberal) 
G/EFA = Greens/European Free Alliance (green and regionalist)
EUL/NGL = European United Left/Nordic Green Left (radical-left)
IND/DEM = Group for Independence and Democracy (anti-European)
UEN = Union for a Europe of Nations (nationalist-conservative)
na = non-attached members (mostly extreme-right)

Following the sixth European Parliament elections in June 2004, the 2004-09 parliament is slightly less left-wing and slightly more anti-European than the 1999-04 parliament.  As Table 1 shows, the two main party groups on the right - the EPP-ED and UEN - control about 40 per cent of the seats between them.  This is exactly as they did in the last parliament.  Meanwhile, the three party groups on the left - the PES, the G/EFA, and the EUL/NGL - have a combined force of 39 per cent, down from 43 per cent at the start of the 1999-04 parliament.  Despite the extensive coverage of the success of several Eurosceptic and extremist movements in the June elections, MEPs from anti-European, radical right and protest parties only account for 9 per cent of the new parliament compared with 8 per cent in the last parliament.  Although, the main anti-European group, now called the Independence/Democracy group, now contains 32 MEPs.

One change is the increased strength of the party group in the centre.  This group, now called the 'Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe', has grown from 8 to 12 per cent of the seats.  Most of this increase comes from the fifteen Italian Margherita and French UDF MEPs who left the EPP-ED for the ALDE, to distance themselves from their domestic opponents who sit in the EPP-ED.  But, the ALDE also gained seats elsewhere.  For example. the German FDP reached the 5 per cent vote threshold for the first time since 1984, giving them 7 MEPs in the new centre group.

These small changes will not fundamentally change the internal politics of the Parliament, as the EPP and PES will continue to dominate the key posts, such as the president, the vice-presidents and the committee chairs.  However, this picture of stability in the balance of power between the party groups in the Parliament masks a significant change in the balance of power between the political forces inside the Parliament and the political forces in the other two EU institutions.  As a result of these changes, the centre-right is likely to be supported by powerful centre-right coalitions in the Council and in the new Commission.

Whereas for most of the 1999-04 parliament the Council was dominated by centre-left governments, for most of the 2004-09 parliament the Council looks set to be dominated by centre-right governments.  In July 1994, social democrats and greens were in government in twelve of the then fifteen member states.  Contrast this with July 2004, when sixteen of the now twenty-five governments are led by politicians on the centre-right.  This transformation in the political complexion of the Council is not only a result of the recent enlargement of the EU, since about half of the new member states have centre-left governments.  Instead, this change is a result of electoral shifts in the fifteen 'old' member states. 

Similarly, whereas the 1999-04 Commission was the first to be dominated by centre-left politicians, the 2004-09 Commission is dominated by the centre-right.  This is not simply a function of the changing colour of the governments in the Council, who pick the Commissioners.  Another factor is that the Barroso Commission was the first to be appointed under the provisions of the Nice Treaty, whereby each member state has only one Commissioner.  Under the previous rules, most of the big member state appointed one Commissioner from the left and one from the right.  This meant that the Commission was usually fairly evenly balanced.  This time, however, the Commission reflects the power balance in the Council at the time of the Commission's appointment, in the summer of 2004. 

Table 2. The Barroso Commission

Member State

 Party

Portfolios 

President:

Margot Wallström*

Sweden

SD

Enterprise and industry

Jacques Barrot*

France

Con.

Administrative affairs, audit and anti-fraud

Franco Frattini

Italy

Con.

Members:

Information society and media

Stavros Dimas*

Greece

Con.

Economic and monetary affairs

Danuta Hübner*

Poland

Ind.

Fisheries and maritime affairs

Dalia Grybauskaite*

Lithuania

Ind.

Science and research

Ján Figel'*

Slovakia

CD

Health and consumer protection

Olli Rehn*

Finland

Lib.

Development and humanitarian aid

László Kovács

Hungary

SD

Competition

Mariann Fischer Boel

Denmark

Lib.

External relations, and European neighbourhood policy

Charlie McCreevy

Ireland

Con.

Employment, social affairs and equal opportunities

Peter Mandelson

UK

SD

Trade

Andris Piebalgs

Latvia

Lib.

Energy

Notes:

* = Member of the previous Commission.  CD = Christian Democrat, Con. = conservative, Lib. = liberal, SD = social democrat, Ind. = independent.

The result is a major shift in the make-up of the Commission.  Twelve of the twenty members of Prodi Commission were either socialists, greens, or left-liberals (Prodi himself).  As Table 2 shows, in contrast, the Barroso Commission contains nine conservatives or Christian Democrats, seven liberals (most of whom are on the centre-right when it comes to economic policy), six social democrats, and three independents.  Moreover, in the Barroso Commission neo-liberal politicians are in charge of several portfolios that will be key in the coming battles over the reform of the single market and agricultural policies, and in the implementation of the so-called 'Lisbon agenda' of structural economic reform.

In practical terms this means that the EU has shifted from a system of 'co-habitation' in the 1999-04 period to a version of 'unified government' in the 2004-09 period.  In 1999-04, the centre-right parties controlled a majority in the European Parliament, but centre-left politicians dominated the Council and the Commission.  This had significant implications.  In this period, the largest party in the Parliament, the EPP-ED, behaved like the 'official opposition' in the EU: opposing policy and legislative initiatives from the Commission and Council as a matter of principle.  On the other side, the PES group behaved like a 'minority government': eager to support proposals from 'their' Commission and Council, but having to secure support from the liberals, greens and left in the parliament to push these through.

Not surprisingly, the 1999-04 period was marked by several high-profile political battles between the Commission and the Council, on the one side, and the Parliament on the other.  For example, in the adoption of the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive - which set new environmental standards in the manufacturing and recycling of cars - the more 'free market' EPP-Liberal-UEN majority in the Parliament successfully water-down the regulatory framework that had been agreed by the 'Red-Green' coalition in the Commission and Council.

In the 2004-09 period, in contrast, for the first time since the first European Parliament elections in 1979, all three legislative institutions of the EU have a centre-right majority.  The prospect of such united government could potential produce a dramatic change the EU's policy agenda.  A centre-right coalition, lead by a centre-right Commission President together with a few key centre-right/neo-liberal heads of government, could give real teeth to the structural economic reform agenda.  So far, the method of implementing the Lisbon agenda through intergovernmental agreements outside the EU's legislative procedures - the so-called 'Open Method of Coordination' - has produced few results.  However, a centre-right coalition across the EU's legislative institutions could use the legal instruments in the EU treaty to force governments to undertake more fundamental structural reform.  For example, the EU could pass a liberal General Services Directive or other measures aimed at removing restrictions in national labour markets.

Señor Barroso was aware of the new political balance in the EU in his 'auditions' in front of each of the party group in the European Parliament in early June 2004.  In front of the EPP-ED, ALDE and UEN MEPs groups, he spoke of the opportunity to work with these MEPs to promote what he called the 'market liberalising' part of the Lisbon agenda and to oppose calls by several member states for tax harmonisation.  He also offered olive branches to the PES, G/EFA and even the EUL/NGL, promising these party groups that he did not see a contradition between a liberal single market, the continuation of the European welfare state, and high levels of social and environmental protection.  Nevertheless, many MEPs in these groups fear that with Barroso at the helm of a Commission dominated by market liberals, and with a bank of centre-right governments in the Council, the EPP-ED, ALDE and UEN groups may wield far more power in the coming years than their simple numerical power would suggest.  

Watch this space!

An earlier version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of E!Sharp (www.peoplepowerprocess.com)