The UK withdrawal from the European Union, effective as of February 1st, entailed the departure from the European Parliament of its British members, and their subsequent partial replacement by others from among the remaining EU member countries.
Because of the fragility of the parliament’s current political majority, made up of an alliance of conservatives, social democrats and centrist liberals, the disappearance of the British members and the political colours of those now filling some of their vacant seats could have important consequences on the voting of key European legislation during the remainder of the parliament’s five-year term.
The reshuffle of seats has significantly weakened the numbers of Greens in the parliament, who, after celebrating a surge in the 2019 elections, are now overtaken by the far-right. This coincides with the priority made by the newly appointed European Commission of its so-called “Green Deal” programme of proposed measures to achieve a “climate-neutral” European Union (EU).
Since February 1st, there are 46 fewer Members of the European Parliament (MEP’s), as only 27 of the 73 seats previously allocated to the British members are being replaced, reducing the total number of MEPs in the parliament from 751 to 705. The 46 vacant seats will for the present time remain unattributed and reserved for countries which may in the future join the EU.
The redistribution of those 27 previously British MEP seats is calculated according to the population size of the remaining 27 EU member countries, and by this measure just 14 of them, considered to be under-represented, will gain extra seats, ranging variously from one to five each, while the number of MEPs among the 13 other member countries is unaffected.
Among the latter is Germany which, with 96 MEPs before the British withdrawal was enacted, already had the maximum number allowed per country. Those who gain members are France and Spain, which now have an extra five MEP seats, Italy and the Netherlands, which each gain three seats, Ireland, with two more, while Denmark, Estonia, Croatia, Austria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden all gain one extra seat.
The plan for this was already in place before the last European Parliament elections in May 2019, and the new members post-Brexit are the elected candidates from domestic parties in those 14 countries who, on a proportional basis, came closest to the previous ceiling on numbers. In France, this means that President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party, which won the most votes last May, now has two more MEPs, while the country’s Green, far-right and socialist parties all have one more each.
While most MEPs are from national political parties, inside the European Parliament they affiliate themselves variously with the assembly’s seven political blocs – such as the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) or the Greens/European Free Alliance. The political losses from the now removed British seats, plus the political gains for others with the new 27 arrivals, have served to re-order the size of some blocs, although there has been no fundamental change to the assembly’s previous Right-Left balance of power.
The Right has gained slightly, with the EPP – already the largest group in the parliament – and the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) both gaining seats, while the S&D, the centrist Renew Europe and the Greens all lost some ground.
With the loss of seven seats, the number of Green MEPs, down from 74 to 67, has now been overtaken by the far-right I&D, making the Greens the main parliamentary victims of Brexit.
The situation could become further destabilized with the current situation of 13 MEPs from Hungary’s Fidesz party, ruling rightwing populist party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. They were last year suspended from the EPP in a row over Orban’s hardline liberticide and anti-EU policies, and on Monday this week that suspension was upheld at a meeting of top officials of the group, after which EPP leader Donald Tusk, the former European Council president, told reporters: “The opinion of the majority of our political family is quite clear: there is no sufficient progress in Budapest, there are no visible changes when it comes to democratic standards, rule of law and freedom of speech.”
There is a very real possibility of the 13 MEPs jumping ship later this year to the parliament’s European Conservative and Reformists group, the ECR, the the sixth-largest bloc in the European Parliament post-Brexit. If that happens, the rise in members of the ECR would lift them to fifth place, just behind ID, and downgrade the Greens into sixth position.
“It’s not amusing,” commented Philippe Lamberts, Belgian MEP and co-president of the Greens. “We have lost a country [the UK] where we had succeeded well, with 11 MEPs. If we had lost Italy, it would have been simpler for us,” he added, referring to the fact that the Greens have no Italian representative.
“In Parliament there is always an arbitration to be made between the size of a group and its cohesion,” Lamberts said. “Some play on size, [like] the EPP, the liberals, the far-right. We have always prioritised political cohesion, in order to present a coherent image across Europe.”
Following Brexit, the Greens have lost their status as the main opposition force to new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a conservative (the Greens abstained from the vote last November which narrowly approved her team of commissioners). The reduction in their numbers means that the budget allocated to their group will fall. During plenary sessions of the parliament, the contributions by the Greens will, by virtue of their rank by numbers, come after those of the far-right, while their overall speaking time will be reduced
For German MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, a leading member of the parliament’s Green bloc, the losses should be relativized by the influence the Greens indirectly have in the European Council – the EU body composed of heads of state or government which sets out the EU’s political direction – by virtue of the presence of national Green parties in several governments, including Austria, Finland and to a certain extent in Lithuania, and which he believes may increase in forthcoming national elections.
“What I learned over the first couple of months of this legislative period is that our relative weight is not only determined by our election results but also by our relevance in the Council,” he told Mediapart. “According to our election results [in 2019] we were one of the big winners and none of the other groups acknowledged that. Now we’re losing a few seats because of Brexit, [but] we’re still going to be much more powerful than we were ever before in simple numbers, and in addition to that our weight is going to increase in the Council.”
“If that happens there’s not going to be a way around the Greens. So I don’t just go by parliamentary numbers. What is also very important is that we have a very high level of cohesion in our group. We’re unified, and we demonstrated that in many votes, more unified than others. Which makes us a more worthwhile partner because when we say we support you can count on having the support of a whole group and not just different factions.”
Prominent French Green MEP David Cormand, elected to the European Parliament last year and who served between 2016 and 2019 as secretary general of France’s biggest Green party, the ELLV, is less upbeat. “The Greens were one of the winners of the last European elections,” he said. “That cannot be translated, after six months, by a step backwards in parliament. A political sense must be given to all that. One cannot lay down the red carpet for the fascists.” In short, Cormand, like some other MEPs, is arguing for discussions with unaffiliated MEPs – those not allied to any of the political blocs – to join with the Greens during the present legislature in a move that could maintain their previous position of fourth-largest group.
While there was discussion about an alliance with the two MEPs from the rightwing Catalan independence movement, including Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia’s regional government, who withdrew from further talks earlier this week, the Greens are above all debating – and are divided over – a deal with the 14 MEPs from the Italian populist, anti-establishment, anti-globalisation Five Star Movement (M5S), which formed a coalition government in Italy with the far-right Lega Nord party between 2018-2019.
The idea of that alliance was already the subject of a lively debate during the previous parliamentary term, but it has now gained in intensity. “The M5S is a collection of people of which some are close to us, others less so,” said the Greens’ co-president Philippe Lamberts. “On the euro, there has been a clarification with the departure of some MPs [editor’s note: to join the far-right party Lega Nord]. But on the migration issue, I remain concerned.” Lamberts said he believed a future rapprochement with M5S was “extremely complicated”.
In October 2019, the European Parliament rejected by just two votes a resolution calling for the stepping up of search and rescue missions of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in hazardous and often deadly conditions. The MEPs from M5S abstained from the vote after their proposed amendment to the resolution, which amounted to validating the hardline anti-migrant decrees issued by former Italian far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, was rejected. David Cormand is in favour of a conditional alliance with M5S. “With those M5S who are here in Brussels, there is no subject [of discord],” he said. “They voted for 85 percent like us during the previous [parliamentary] term. The subject [of discord] that exists is with the M5S in Italy, and their alliance with the Lega.”
But German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer does not agree with the relevance of the “85 percent” of agreement between the two. “I was the one who proposed in our group that we should look at the issue in more depth and that we should have fact-finding conversations with them, and I’m not willing to jump to a conclusion before we have finalised that exercise,” he said. “If you compare the voting patterns in the German parliament, all parties overlap more than 85 percent, and the real differences are within the last 15 percent, so ‘85’ is just a dumb number.”
Bütikofer said there are three “relevant” criteria that need to be met; coherence on policy substance, a pledge by M5S that there will be no further deals between them and the far-right in Italy, and the respect of rules of elementary democracy and transparency within the group. None of that, he insisted, is yet agreed.
Beyond these differences, all the Green MEPs interviewed by Mediapart see another dilemma with such an alliance; the M5S is in decline, and an albeit uncertain space appears to be opening for the Left in Italian politics, with the emergence of the “Sardines” grass-roots movement against the far-right, the shift towards the Left in the country’s Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi, and the intention of former M5S education minister Lorenzo Fioramonti to launch a Green party. To bring the M5S MEPs into the ranks of the Greens in the European Parliament could run contrary to the emergence and reinforcement of a Green movement in Italy.
- The French version of this report can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse