In the European elections candidates are heavily dependent on their national parties, especially where they have to be in an electable position on a closed list. Theoretically every member of the European Parliament is elected by the citizens, but in practice the battles decide a few marginal seats (and individual fates) between the political parties.
Once elected, the member of the European Parliament (MEP) depends on his or her political group to get ahead in the game. Despite being loose coalitions ideologically, the political groups handle the levers of power.
The EP committees offer one example.
The political groups in the European Parliament are central to the composition of the committees, where the preparatory political work takes place. The political groups and the non-attached members submit nominations.
The Conference of Presidents, where the EP President and the chairs of the political groups meet, submits proposals to Parliament (plenary), striving to reflect the composition of the Parliament.
The full Parliament can overturn the Conference proposals only on the basis of amendments tabled by at least forty members (which happens to be more than the number of non-attached members).
This means that the individual MEPs depend on the support of their political group if they want to land coveted committee memberships.
The Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament (16th edition, October 2008):
Rule 177 Composition of committees
1. Members of committees and committees of inquiry shall be elected after nominations have been submitted by the political groups and the non-attached Members. The Conference of Presidents shall submit proposals to Parliament. The composition of the committees shall, as far as possible, reflect the composition of Parliament.
Official explanation: When Members change political groups they shall retain, for the remainder of their two and a half year term of office, the seats they hold in parliamentary committees. However, if a Member's change of political group has the effect of disturbing the fair representation of political views in a committee, new proposals for the composition of that committee shall be made by the Conference of Presidents in accordance with the procedure laid down in paragraph 1, second sentence, whereby the individual rights of the Member concerned shall be guaranteed.
2. Amendments to the proposals of the Conference of Presidents shall be admissible only if they are tabled by at least forty Members. Parliament shall vote on such amendments by secret ballot.
3. Members shall be deemed to be elected on the basis of the proposals by the Conference of Presidents, as and where amended pursuant to paragraph 2.
4. Where a political group fails to submit nominations for membership of a committee of inquiry pursuant to paragraph 1 within a time limit set by the Conference of Presidents, the Conference of Presidents shall submit to Parliament only the nominations communicated to it within that time limit.
5. The Conference of Presidents may provisionally decide to fill any vacancy on a committee with the agreement of the persons to be appointed and having regard to paragraph 1.
6. Any such changes shall be placed before Parliament for ratification at the next sitting.
The political groups appoint the substitutes even more directly:
Rule 178 Substitutes
1. The political groups and the non-attached Members may appoint a number of permanent substitutes for each committee equal to the number of full members representing them on the committee. The President shall be informed accordingly.
These permanent substitutes shall be entitled to attend and speak at committee meetings and, if the full member is absent, to take part in the vote.
2. In addition, in the absence of the full member and where no permanent substitutes have been appointed or in their absence, the full member of the committee may arrange to be represented at meetings by another member of the same political group, who shall be entitled to vote. The name of the substitute shall be notified to the chair of the committee prior to the beginning of the voting session.
The rest of the text is probably meant to be an official explanation in its entirety despite the inconsistent use of italics:
Paragraph 2 shall apply, mutatis mutandis, to the non-attached Members.
The advance notification provided for in the last sentence of paragraph 2 must be given before the end of the debate or before the opening of the vote on the item or items for which the full member is to be replaced.
The provisions of this Rule encompass two concepts which are clearly defined by this text:
- a political group may not have more permanent substitutes for a committee than it has full members;
- only political groups are entitled to appoint permanent substitutes, on the sole condition that they inform the President.
- the status of permanent substitutes depends exclusively on membership of a given political group;
- where the number of a political group's full members in a committee is altered, the maximum number of permanent substitutes which it can appoint to that committee is altered accordingly;
- Members who change political groups may not keep the status of permanent substitute which they had as members of their original group;
- a committee member may not under any circumstances be a substitute for a colleague who belongs to another political group.
A few more examples will follow on the role of the political groups.