“What are we going to do now?” asked the Brussels lobbyist. “The European Parliament used to be so predictable”. Until about 2004 – when the Euro-sceptics began their inexorable rise – the Strasbourg assembly was divided into manageable blocs of centre-right, centre-left, liberals and greens. Extremists and basket cases were few and far between, writes Justin Stares.
The Brussels business lobby – perhaps 20,000 strong – worked happily alongside the largely malleable centre-right Christian Democrat-dominated European People’s Party (EPP). If necessary, ad hoc alliances were struck with the Socialist and Liberals blocs. While not always getting its way, this has been the general rule that has served industry well.
But the fragmentation of the parliament and its electorate, which began ten years ago, has culminated in the creation of sizeable political groups to the right of the EPP. The European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), led by a British Conservative, are now the third largest force in the assembly, outnumbering the Liberals. The Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, led by another Briton, Nigel Farage, is still going strong. And even though France’s Marine Le Pen has not yet been able to bring together the right mix of nationalities to create a third group, her Euro MPs are unlikely to join the centrists.
With the EPP’s influence diminished and the Socialist bloc also squeezed by the far left, the question for lobbyists today is: how do we cobble together alliances?
If seeking to amend a draft law, business would rely on friends in the business-friendly, pro-European EPP. The Euro-sceptic ECR group – to the detriment of the British Conservatives – has been considered undesirable; officials in the European Commission and Council of Ministers are unlikely to be impressed if the ECR group is sponsoring your amendment. Given the unsavoury allies the Conservatives have allowed into their group, the ECR will hardly become less disreputable in the eyes of mainstream Brussels. The EFD group, meanwhile, has been considered so far off the scale of acceptability it was not even taken into consideration.
All that could now change. To garner the majorities required to amend laws, industry might have hold its nose and do business with the Euro-sceptics. “UKIP MEPs are actually quite pro-business,” another lobbyist commented. “You might not want to have one sponsoring your amendment, but they could be useful”.
“I would never tell a client not to talk to anybody,” said a third lobbyist who specialises in finance. “But in the past we would not recommend talking to the ECR. That might have to change”.
Shifting majorities are just one of the novelties of a European parliament that is shaping up to be full of fun and games over the next five years. Independents could spice up drab assembly debates. Newly elected Irishman Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is well known for his campaign to legalise cannabis (not controversial in Belgium, where it was de-criminalised a long time ago); the Swedes have elected formal feminists; and the Dutch and Germans have sent the first dedicated animal rights activists to Brussels and Strasbourg. Who knows, with reports of the first sitting neo-Nazi MEP now circulating, we might even be in for fisticuffs.
Entertainment will however take place on the margins, at least initially. On the big issues – such as electing leaders of the EU institutions – the centre-right and centre-left will probably close ranks and pretend that nothing has changed.
Will rebels, Euro-sceptics and other odds and sods be able to cause real disruption? The expectations are not high, but if they were truly devious, anti-establishment representatives might take a look at the rules on motions of no confidence in the European Commission. Any such no confidence vote is sure to fail, though a rag-tag alliance, if it is capable of acting cohesively, could quite possibly have enough members to table repeated motions, bringing the assembly to an effective halt.
You can follow Justin on Twitter at @JustinStares