Fake Groups in the European Parliament. What Makes a Group a Group and Why Are Fake Groups a Problem?
Honorary President of the UEF and the European Movement International, Member of the European Parliament (1999-2019)
During the 8th parliamentary term (2014-2019), the internal rules of the European Parliament (EP) on the creation of political groups have been exploited to an extent that could be considered fraudulent. When the responsible Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) took on the issue, the debate quickly became heated and overloaded with fiction and unfounded allegations. In this article, I will elaborate why Fake Groups in the European Parliament are a threat to European democracy.
The role of political groups in the European Parliament
Political groups exist in all parliamentary democracies and thus in all Member States of the European Union (EU). As opposed to political parties and elected representatives, political groups very rarely enjoy constitutional rights. Their main purpose is to provide a structure to organise the political work of elected members of a party or – in some cases – parties in the parliament. Therefore, they are governed by parliamentary rules of procedure, rather than laws or constitutions. These foresee privileges, as for example speaking rights in plenary, and financial and administrative support to conduct the day-to-day business.
In the Member States, not much thought is given to the role of political groups, as usually the elected parliamentarians of each party organise themselves in a corresponding group, whose creation is sometimes subject to a threshold. While some federally organised Member States also know political groups consisting of more than one party, these remain the exception. In Belgium, the Flemish and French speaking Green parties, ECOLO and Groen, form a joint political group. In Germany, the conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU work together in a group. On the national level, parties which form a political group usually do not compete with each other in elections, as they either run in different sub-national electoral areas (i.e. regions), or form joint party lists.
On the European level, the situation is more complicated. Unlike federal states as Germany or the USA, the EU lacks an integrated party system. In the European Parliament, according to Rule 32 of its rules of procedure, “Members may form themselves into groups according to their political affinities”, and must consist of at least 25 MEPs from at least one quarter of the Member States. Political groups have to aggregate the demands of sometimes dozens of different parties into common positions. With more than 140 different national parties, the European Parliament would be dysfunctional without a transnationally organised structure that groups the elected MEPs from all Member States according to their political affinity.
Political parties and their corresponding political group in parliament are closely interlinked in the Member States. A MP who repeatedly votes against his political group’s line risks not to be nominated again by his party. Some of the political groups in the EP, like the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the European People’s Party (EPP), are as well closely linked with the corresponding European political party (EuPP). However, as European elections are conducted mainly under national rules with national parties and national electoral lists, and – due to the resistance of the EPP – without a second vote for transnational lists, EuPPs have no comparable sanctioning mechanism to punish rebel behaviour.
What are Fake Groups?
Fake Groups are founded solely with the aim of maximizing privileges and resources, and not to pursue common political goals. Such Fake Groups have existed since the first direct elections to the European Parliament. In 1979, the “Groupe de coordination technique des groupes et des parlementaires indépendants” (CDI Group) was created, followed by the “Groupe arc-en-ciel” (Rainbow Group) in 1984, the “Groupe technique de défense des groupes et des députés indépendants” (CTDI Group) in 1987, and again “the Rainbow Group” in 1989.
Between 1999 and 2001 the “Technical Group of Independents” (TGI Group) existed, an alliance of such unlikely partners as the French Front National and the liberal Italian Bonino List. Its members openly neglected any common ground and even laid down in the constituent statement that “[t]he various signatory members assert that they are politically entirely independent of each other.”[i] After the European Parliament blocked the creation of the group, five years of legal proceedings followed. Ultimately, the Court of Justice of the EU dismissed all appeals as last instance, but criticized the lack of clarity in the rules as well as a lack of right for independent MEPs. The rules of procedure were amended in 2003 to guarantee the so-called “Non-Inscrits” (NI) additional rights, but the requirement of “political affinity” remained undefined and uncontrolled. An interpretation of Rule 32 (19) RoP codified a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice:
“Parliament need not normally evaluate the political affinity of members of a group. In forming a group together under this Rule, the Members concerned accept by definition that they have political affinity. Only when this is denied by the Members concerned is it necessary for Parliament to evaluate whether the group has been constituted in accordance with the Rules.”
Since then, political groups were by virtue of their existence assumed to share a political affinity, provided they do not openly challenge this assumption.
The “Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy” Group (EFDD)
In October 2014, the Italian 5-star movement (M5S) and the UK independence party (Ukip) formed a political group called “European of Freedom and Direct Democracy” (EFDD). Other groups refused to welcome the then relatively new party of comedian Beppe Grillo and Farage’s Brexit-extremists in their ranks. The members of the EFDD were smart enough not to lay down in their constituent statement that the group’s purpose is purely technical. With the aim of fostering “direct democracy”, they also found one (albeit the only one) common aim, even though campaigning for an in/out-referendum on British EU-membership (Ukip) is hardly the same as asking for the possibility for citizens to block local and regional infrastructure projects (M5S).
There is substantial evidence that political cooperation has never been the EFDD’s purpose. Firstly, in light of the outcome of the Brexit-referendum in 2016, which Ukip had influenced decisively, Beppe Grillo himself urged M5S-MEPs to leave the alliance with Ukip and join another group, or “to face the next two-and-a-half years without a common political objective.”[ii] What followed was a bizarre episode driven by power politics.
With the prospect of increasing the influence of his “Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats” (ALDE-Group), Guy Verhofstadt was quick to announce M5S would be welcome in ALDE. As a result, M5S quit the EFDD. Verhofstadt, however, was not able to convince his current 69 members that ALDE – which considers itself a strongly pro-European group – shares enough common ground with M5S. Hence, the ALDE-leader was forced to make a U-turn and reject M5S as a partner, stating fundamental differences on key European issues as a reason. Left without a group, M5S continued its technical cooperation with Ukip and the EFDD lived on.
Secondly, VoteWatch conducted an analysis of the voting behaviour of the EP’s eight political groups during the 8th legislature, which was published in January 2019, and according to which “the EFDD group has the lowest score by far (only 48%), as its members vote against each other most of the time. The right-wing nationalist ENF scores also low (69%). Conversely, the Greens/EFA group has consistently been the most cohesive group across the parliamentary term (95%). EPP and S&D also score high.”[iii]
When created in 2014, the EFDD consisted of 48 MEPs of which 24 (50%) were Ukip members and 17 (35%) were elected on a M5S ticket. The other MEPs were elected in France (1), Poland (1),Czech Republic (1), Sweden (2) and Lithuania (2). Thus, 85 per cent of EFDD-members came from two parties who voted against each other in the majority of all cases. Evidently, the EFDD does not fulfill any of the functions of a parliamentary group. Being dominated by heterogeneous MEPs from two Member States, it does neither form common positions, nor provide a form of transnational representation. The requirement of having members from one quarter of Member States to form a group is without effect, if it is enough for one or two parties to win support of a handful of fringe MEPs from other Member States, which are often lured by the promise of positions and resources.
Fake Groups are threatening the functioning of the European Parliament
The EFDD has received millions in taxpayer’s money. In 2016 alone, the group was awarded roughly 3 million Euros, a number that increased even further with the years, as the total budget for the support of political parties rose from 55 million Euros in 2016 to 64 million Euros in 2019. The money is intended to finance staff, meetings, conferences and events by the group. In the EFDD, however, each of the two big member parties had control over their “share” of the staff. They held group meetings only to agree on technicalities and keep the group going, and not to find common positions and act together politically. Ukip and 5-star movement have always acted only on their own behalf. The main purpose of the group, as it seems, was to channel resources to its members.
It is thus safe to assume that the campaign for a Brexit-referendum in the UK in 2016 and the 5-star’s rise to power on the national level in Italy, were at least partially and indirectly supported and financed by the EU-budget. Ukip have never taken part in serious parliamentary work, but rather used the EP’s plenary sessions to address their national audience. Furthermore, as of May 2019 the European Parliament has recovered more than 200.000 Euro from several current and former Ukip-members – including Nigel Farage himself and Ukip’s former leader Paul Nuttall – for misusing public funds through payments to party workers.[iv]
In summary, there are two main reasons, why Fake Groups in the EP are likely to become an increasingly serious challenge for the functioning of European democracy. Firstly, the inability to stop such an obvious scam to exploit the European taxpayer – nothing else is the EFDD – lets the EU’s democratic institutions appear weak and could thus undermine trust in the European Union. After all, it is one of the highest duties of elected representatives to manage taxpayers’ money responsibly. Secondly, in light of the transformation of the party systems in the Member States - which is characterised by increasing fragmentation and voters’ volatility - well-functioning political groups with the ability to bundle demands into common positions become even more important.
As the European Parliament’s rules of procedure were inadequate and not sufficiently concrete to prohibit the creation of Fake Groups, it was the responsibility of AFCO to discuss possibilities to remedy the shortcomings.
Reforming the rules: Unfinished business
In December 2019, the AFCO-Committee had its last opportunity to reform its rules and prohibit EFDD-style Fake Groups after the European elections in May 2019. Following consultations between the groups that were willing to take actively part in the debate in a constructive way, two amendments were tabled and consequently voted in plenary on 30 January 2019. The amendments would have guaranteed impartiality towards all political forces and set high thresholds to dissolve a group, while providing a clearer procedure and enabling the European Parliament to protect the money of the European taxpayer:
- Change Rule 32 (1) in order to allow parliament to evaluate the political affinity of a group in case there is manifest evidence that this may not be the case. In that case, Parliament, by a majority of its component members, on a recommendation of the Conference of Presidents, would have determined whether the group has been constituted according to political affinity, without prejudice to the right of all political groups to challenge the decision in the EU’s courts.
- Oblige political groups to include their purpose in the constituent declaration under Rule 32 (5); oblige all members of the group to declare in writing in an annex to the statement that they share the same political affinity.
While both amendments received a majority of votes, only the second of them was adopted, as for changes to the rules of procedure an absolute majority of MEPs is necessary. It is a tangible improvement that members of the same group have to sign a declaration of affinity (imagine M5S-members undersigning their affinity with Nigel Farage) and the groups’ constituent declaration have to contain a description of their purpose. Furthermore, on 15 April 2019 plenary adopted an additional interpretation, which defines that “[t]he political declaration of a group shall set out the values that the group stands for and the main political objectives which its members intend to pursue together in the framework of the exercise of their mandate. The declaration shall describe the common political orientation of the group in a substantial, distinctive and genuine way.”
The formal hurdles to create a new group are now higher and, in the future, the EP’s services might be able to block the creation of groups that are obviously fraudulent. However, the procedures remain opaque and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” interpretation in Rule 32 is unchanged. Noteworthy, the first amendment was not adopted primarily due to the absolute resistance of the Green/EFA-group to engage in any constructive dialogue. With the European elections approaching, the focus of the Greens was to accuse the ones working on the issue of being non-democratic and trying to prevent pluralism. Nothing could be more far-fetched. A democracy must be able to stop the blunt misuse of funds, especially if the money is used to attack that very institution.
After the European elections in May 2019, more national parties than ever will enter the European Parliament. The members of the next AFCO-Committee should thus closely follow the (re-)creation of political groups after the elections and in due time analyze if further changes are necessary. Political groups in the European Parliament are not a technicality; they are a fundamental element for the functioning of the EU’s only directly elected institution.
[i] Corbett, Richard: “Working Document on the proposed amendments, tabled pursuant to Rule 181 of the Rules of Procedure, to Rule 30 and on a horizontal amendment to the Rules of Procedure (B5-0059/99 and B5-0060/99)“, Constitutional Affairs Committee, European Parliament, 10 December 1999.
[ii] The Local.it: “Italy’s Five Star Movement leader urges split from UKIP in European Parliament”, 9 January 2017, https://www.thelocal.it/20170109/italian-populist-urges-abandoning-ukip-in-eu-parliament [last access 10 May 2019].
[iii] Vote Watch: “Which EP political groups are actually fake?”, 21 January 2019, https://www.votewatch.eu/blog/which-ep-political-groups-are-actually-fake/ [last access 9 May 2019].
[iv] Rankin, Jennifer: “EU recovers £200,000 from Ukip MEPs accused of misusing funds”, The Guardian, 3 May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/03/eu-recovers-200000-from-ukip-meps-accused-of-misusing-funds [last access 10 May 2019].