9 July 2019

After the European Council agreed on nominations for the next leaders of EU institutions, and the new European Parliament (EP) elected its new President and Vice Presidents (VPs), the new EP committees and subcommittees will elect their chairs and vice chairs on Wednesday 10 July.

Committee chairs are not as influential as VPs, but they are still important positions to hold as they represent the committees during plenary sessions and in relations with external actors.

The distribution of chairmanships is usually done according to the D’Hondt system so that each group is proportionally represented, in combination with a series of negotiations between political groups as part of the whole Parliament’s top jobs package.

If this system is followed, it would allow the far-right populist Identity and Democracy (ID) group to gain the chairmanships of the Agriculture and Legal Affairs committees, as well as a number of other posts in other committees.

However, ID faces a major obstacle: the cordon sanitaire previously employed by pro-European groups to keep the far-right away from key posts in the EP.

This technique was deployed in 2014, but back then it was not a difficult task. The Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group took some time to be formed in the aftermath of the elections. By the time that it satisfied the thresholds of minimum 25 MEPs from at least seven member states, all of the committee posts had already been distributed. Moreover, the ENF (which had 37 MEPs) was the smallest official group in the European Parliament, which justified its absence from key positions.

This time, it is different. ID has already been formed and has a substantial presence. The group currently has 73 MEPs (only one behind the Greens), and is due to overtake the Greens to become the fourth largest group after Brexit.

Nevertheless, on 3 July, the EP’s 14 Vice Presidents were elected and none of them were from the far-right. VPs do not influence the legislative work of the Parliament but hold important administrative responsibilities. They came from all the main groups (European People’s Party, Socialists & Democrats, Renew Europe and the Greens), as well as from the European Left (smaller than ID) and even from the anti-establishment Italian Five Star Movement, which sits independently with its 14 MEPs. As the Brexit Party has decided not to join any group and has not managed to create its own, it does not have automatic access to these positions.

Over the last weeks several reports have confirmed that the main groups are planning to vote against ID candidates for committee chairmanships as well. The Greens have been vocal in opposing ID chairs, and sources from other groups have said the key posts will be “shared among EPP, S&D, liberals and greens.”

There are several reasons why the main groups are opposed to having ID committee chairs. First, there are specific concerns about granting the French right-wing Rassemblement National (RN) – which is opposed to the Common Agricultural Policy and calls for a nationalisation of aid to farmers – substantial influence in the Agriculture committee. There are also fears about the incompetence of some of the ID candidates.

The mainstream are concerned that giving populists the opportunity to chair and manage EU institutional committees would allow them to claim that they are successfully changing the EU from within  – something promised during the campaigns of many right-wing parties, including the RN and Italy’s Lega party.

Domestic reasons also come into play. In France, for instance, there are fears about Marine Le Pen’s RN, which won the European elections in May, being able to prove that it can be competent in administrative roles, and thereby improve its ratings ahead of the presidential election in 2022.

But maintaining the exclusion of populists from key posts is a risky strategy. It amplifies the message that European institutions are undemocratic, unrepresentative, controlled by technocrats and pursuing an exclusively pro-federalist path.

ID’s Vice President Nicolas Bay, from RN, said the group was “totally ostracised” and that the methods used to elect top posts were “very undemocratic.” RN MEP Philippe Olivier also claimed that the EU could “break from all of its principles just to ostracise us,” or it could “democratic and respect the peoples.”

Moreover, as an EPP source told Le Monde paper, excluding these parties

has become difficult, now that they are saying they… no longer want to leave the EU.

Pro-EU MEPs can always point to the rules of the process: a vote has been held and they chose committee chairs democratically. For instance, the co-chair of the European Greens, Philippe Lamberts, said that “if the majority of the Parliament is opposed to the election of one of [ID’s] candidates, it is also a democratic act.”

Overall, the far-right does not have enough power to command a majority in the new Parliament, and is unlikely to make a major legislative impact. As argued in a previous Open Europe briefing, their gains are part of a consolidation of 2014 results, rather than a populist wave across the EU.

However, completely excluding them from key positions such as committee chairmanships (especially without any VPs) as it was done in the past is increasingly difficult. After Brexit the ID’s presence relative to the overall Parliament will increase. Its most important parties, Italy’s right-wing Lega and France’s RN, came first in European elections in their countries. A large number of voters in these founding member states chose these parties and expect to represented.

While most pro-EU groups remain opposed to ID MEPs having key posts, excluding them would only serve to legitimise their discourses about the lack of representation in EU institutions.