The pan-European parties have long been considered mere consultative bodies, rather than decision-making ones. Power has always remained in the hands of the national party chiefs and the heads of state. Traditionally, the leading political figures within the EU institutions, whether commissioners or MEPs, have been seen as following instructions from their party bosses back home.
But the aftermath of the 2014 European elections may indicate a change of direction. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the EP has become bolder, not only when negotiating legislation, but also when appointing the EU’s chief executives. MEPs have been able not only to create a united front among themselves but also to rally support among their colleagues at national level using the structures of the European parties. Ultimately, they submit their candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.
Moreover, as shown by VoteWatch Europe, an organisation that tracks the votes and activities of MEPs, the internal cohesion of the EU political groups is surprisingly high despite the increasing cultural and geographical diversity that has resulted from successive EU enlargements (VoteWatch Europe 2015b).Footnote 1 MEPs come from 28 countries with different economic situations, and different cultural and religious traditions. Some come from governing parties while others are in opposition. They speak 24 different languages. Individually, they would say that this makes it difficult and time-consuming for them to understand each other and reach common positions. And yet it seems that, generally speaking, the socialising effect of being part of a group with shared values contributes significantly to shaping a common vision of what the future of the EU should be and how our societies should function. Not least, the increasing security concerns both on the eastern frontier (concerning the conflict in Ukraine) and elsewhere (the emergence of Islamic State in particular) seem to have acted as catalysts for finding communalities within political families.
Since the 2014–2019 EP term got under way, most of the political groups have shown a high level of internal cohesion. This may be explained by the fact that half of the MEPs are new and have not yet been able to develop their own individual positions. The largest European political group, that of the European People’s Party (EPP), has proved better at mobilising its MEPs in this first part of the parliamentary term. As a result it continues to be the leading EP group, despite substantial losses in the May 2014 elections. This can partly be explained by the more fragmented political landscape. This has resulted in the EPP being under increased pressure from both the left and the right, a likely incentive for its backbenchers to support their leaders.
At the end of 2014, the level of internal cohesion of the EPP reached a record 95 %, the highest level since 2004, when VoteWatch began measuring this indicator. Similarly, the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, once the fourth most cohesive group, has moved to second place, having improved its score from 88 % to 91 % (VoteWatch Europe 2015b).
The Conservatives and Reformists Group has, in theory, become stronger after the elections, as it is now the third largest in the parliament. In practice, however, its new structure, in which the British and Polish delegations are almost on a par, has apparently been making it more difficult than before to reach a common position. The group has lost 10 % in cohesion, going from 86 % to 76 %.
On the left, the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats is slightly less cohesive than before the elections. But the biggest negative change belongs to the Group of the Greens and the European Free Alliance; this group lost 6 %, reaching a record low of 88.5 % at the end of 2014. In reality however, these figures are an overestimate as the first six months of a term are a period of adaptation: half of the MEPs are new and many parties face changes in their internal composition as well as changes in the group’s leadership. Over time, the disparity in cohesion should narrow within these groups.
Last but not least, the Eurosceptics of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group have been finding it much more difficult than any other group to agree among themselves. In fact, they vote as a group only about half of the time, while in other instances they effectively cancel out each other’s votes. This indicates that in this particular case the reasons for creating a group are much less about values than about logistics and strategy. Being part of a group helps individual members gain access to speaking time, reports, information and financial resources. It is worth mentioning here the failed attempt of the National Front (Front National) and its allies in 2014 to form yet another Eurosceptic, nationalist group. This did not succeed, largely because of the lack of coalition potential; that is, they were unable to find enough members from enough countries to side with their MEPs.