The liberal group in the European Parliament holds the balance of power in the assembly when there is a split between the centre-right and the centre-left, but the EPP, the largest party, can pass legislation alone when it is disciplined, a report has found.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group holds the balance of power because it is able to choose to form a winning centre-right majority with the European People's Party (EPP) group or a winning centre-left majority with the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and Greens/EFA groups when the EPP and S&D groups are split.
As a result, ALDE has found itself on the winning side in the new legislature more often than the EPP, which was not the case before the 2009 elections, reveals new research published this week by VoteWatch.eu, a website launched in 2009 to track MEPs' voting records in the EU assembly.
However, since the new European Parliament began its work in July 2009, there has only been a left-right split on 35% of legislative votes. Indeed, 63% of the time there is a 'grand coalition' between the EPP, S&D and ALDE groups.
The VoteWatch figures are based on 1,351 roll-call votes in European Parliament plenary sessions between July 2009, when the new legislature began, and December 2010.
MEPs vote along party lines
"There are very, very high levels of voting along party lines in the European Parliament. What matters is which group you come from, not your nationality," said Simon Hix, chairman of VoteWatch.eu and professor of European and comparative politics at the London School of Economics.
Indeed, voting cohesion among members of the main political groups is very high and has increased since the last legislature, figures show.
"But voting along national lines still takes place on certain issues, like agriculture," Hix added.
Stressing the importance of operating on a party-political basis, UK Liberal Democrat MEP and European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis said "sometimes my visitors express shock that I don't vote waving a Union Jack, but they voted for me along party-political lines, so that's how I vote".
With 36% of seats in the EU assembly the EPP group is capable of winning on its own even when the S&D and ALDE groups vote against it. To emerge victorious in such situations the EPP requires a high degree of internal cohesion and a high participation rate, which is often the case for votes on civil liberties and environment policy.
But if an S&D and ALDE coalition is formed and the EPP suffers a high number of defections, which can happen on gender equality issues, then the EPP will lose.
Coalitions built on issue-by-issue basis
"Coalitions have to be built issue by issue, which means that ALDE can sometimes hold the balance of power if the EPP and the S&D groups don't vote together," Hix said.
"When there's a grand coalition between EPP and S&D, ALDE votes with the coalition. When the grand coalition breaks down, ALDE votes with the EPP 50% of the time and S&D for the other 50%, depending on the issue," said Hix to nods of agreement from liberal MEP Wallis.
The VoteWatch report found that the EPP group will easily win whenever ALDE votes with it, as it tends to do on economic and monetary affairs.
"It's pleasing to see that the ALDE group plays a pivotal role, and that we can work with the EPP on economic issues and the S&D group on civil liberties. This holds true to our liberal identity," said MEP Wallis.
One consequence of the tendency for groups to vote as a block, according to Polish MEP Rafa? Trzaskowski – a member of the EPP group – is that MEPs from the biggest groups will toe the party line on key issues whatever their personal beliefs.
Indeed, in roll-call votes it would be political suicide for MEPs who harbour hopes of building a career in the Parliament and holding key positions in committees to rebel against the group whip, explained Trzaskowski, who is vice-chair of the EU assembly's constitutional affairs committee.
Toeing party line crucial for MEPs' careers
"To be credible and effective, you have to stick with your group. Deviation from the group is a sign of weakness because you show that you were unable to convince your political colleagues of your point of view and reveal yourself to be a defector," the Polish MEP said.
"MEPs from the new member states have known since day one how costly it is to vote against the group. The predicted split between MEPs from old and new member states has not emerged," Trzaskowski said, an assertion confirmed by the VoteWatch figures.
Moreover, when an MEP speaks before governments at EU Council meetings, "he takes care to speak on behalf of the European Parliament […] because that's what he's been invited to do," said the Polish MEP.
"Otherwise [by giving his own point of view] he weakens the Parliament as an institution in the eyes of governments," Trzaskowski said.
However, some participants in the debate said defecting from the party line was not necessarily a sign of weakness. "On ACTA [the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement] the MEPs who voted against were probably experts who were better informed and did not agree with a hastily-decided party line. These are new issues and after all, ACTA is not even legislation yet," said a trade expert.
Group membership holds key to influence
Fringe groups, meanwhile, find their ability to influence EU legislation compromised by their lack of rapporteurs on key parliamentary committees, and as a result their MEPs use parliamentary questions and make speeches more often than their counterparts in larger groups.
"The fringe groups use questions and speeches more often than the biggest ones, because they don't have the same access to report writing," said Simon Hix.
EPP member Trzaskowski confirmed that membership of a large group is crucial if an MEP wants to genuinely influence parliamentary activity, something that the UK Conservatives are learning the hard way after leaving the EPP to set up a new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists, after the last elections.
"I ask my UK Tory colleagues what the key difference is between this term and last, and they say ‘last term we had 10 EPP coordinators'. It's clear where the power lies," Trzaskowski said.