The ruthless haggle to convert EU votes into ‘money, staff and power’

Voting in EU elections ends on Sunday evening, marking the start of a political battle and horse-trading to convert millions of ballots into money and power.

The more lawmakers in the 720-strong European parliament a political group can muster, the more funding it receives and the more power it can wield — from shaping policy to securing influential jobs.

But ideological — and often quite personal — differences have in the past scuppered larger alliances, casting doubt about the feasibility of more ambitious plans, such as uniting the hard right.

“The interest in this election is not just the result on Sunday night but what will happen after,” said a senior European parliament staffer. “Blood has been spilled on this kind of thing,” said another.

Negotiations must be completed in 24 days, according to an internal document. But with the hardening of political positions both on the left and the right, “every five years this is becoming more ideological”, said the first senior staffer.

The four main groups have traditionally been the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the liberals of Renew and the Greens/EFA. But they have been shrinking over the years as fringe parties take more and more votes.

Marine Le Pen (C) attends a parliament session before the National Assembly rejected a motion of censure tabled by LFI, which intended to denounce the country’s budgetary situation
Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, wants to form a mega-group with ECR or scoop up enough MEPs to outnumber Renew © Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

To the left is a long-standing group, GUE/NGL, with a fluctuating membership that now includes the far-left movement of France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Irish nationalists of Sinn Féin.

To the right are two growing factions: the ultraconservative ECR and the far-right Identity and Democracy group (ID), plus a medley of non-affiliated members deemed too extreme to join any grouping. 

Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader whose Rassemblement National (RN) dominates ID, seeks either to form a mega-group with ECR or scoop up enough MEPs to outnumber Renew, which is the political family of her domestic nemesis, President Emmanuel Macron.

Klaus Welle, secretary-general of the parliament between 2009 and 2022, said Le Pen could join Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to form a new rightwing group, possibly with Spanish populists Vox who currently sit with ECR.

But the leader most courted by both the EPP and the ID is Giorgia Meloni, the Italian premier whose hard-right Brothers of Italy party dominates ECR. Meloni has not shown any appetite to join forces. “She wants to be important and get things from other leaders,” said an EU diplomat, suggesting she would maintain a gap with ID.

One parliament official agrees. “It suits her to have another party further right. You always want someone more extreme than yourself,” they said.

“The right is always the most divided,” the official added.

The far-right has often splintered and reformed in the past. The Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group collapsed in 2007 after its five Romanian members quit in protest at anti-Romanian comments by Italian member Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the fascist dictator. She now sits with the EPP.

Factions on the hunt for bigger clout will try to attract unaffiliated parties. The EPP’s chair, Manfred Weber, has said he would welcome a new Hungarian opposition led by Orban’s former ally-turned-foe, Peter Magyar. 

A group needs 23 members from seven countries, allowing some lone MEPs to drive a hard bargain.

One ex-party staffer remembers sitting in a selection meeting. “You can leverage a lot. We were not prepared. This MEP had a list of demands for positions and allowances. We couldn’t do it so they joined another group.” In 2014, seven MEPs declined to join the Liberal group because they could not be promised a vice-president position.

But there is a benefit for minnows to join a bigger shoal, too.

Groups with more members gain more funding for parliamentary activities; the budget is allocated according to a formula dictated by the number of seats each group wins.

Rightwing leaders Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán
The leader most courted by both the EPP and the ID is Giorgia Meloni, seen with Viktor Orbán © Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

In the first six months this year, the total budget came to €36mn. The biggest group, EPP, got €9mn, with the smallest, the Left, receiving €2mn while unattached members shared €1.5mn. 

Another formula, known as the D’Hondt system after a Belgian mathematician, is meant to ensure a fair distribution of the parliament’s key jobs according to group size.

But joining one of the broader groups is not straightforward.

National rivalries can blow up when opposing parties domestically try to join the same EU group. The deeply divisive decision to allow Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to join the EPP in 1998 resulted in the Christian Democrat Italian People’s Party leaving shortly after.

“You form groups for money, staff, and power,” said one party official with a ringside seat. “For many, political friendship is lower down the list,” they said.

Few Green voters realised they were supporting a pro-Moscow Latvian MEP until she was accused of being a Russian spy this year. Tatjana Ždanoka, was a parliament member for 20 years as part of EFA, a band of regionalists that sit with the Greens to boost their numbers. The EFA ejected her, although she denies the allegations.

Sophie in t’Veld, a lawmaker who used to sit with the Dutch D66 party as part of Renew, is now running in Belgium for an unaffiliated pro-EU party called Volt.

Volt would most likely join the Greens or Renew, In t’Veld said, but “you have some very rightwing parties in the liberals and in the Greens some very far-left groups that are green but not progressive”.

She said negotiations in 2019 for Macron’s Renaissance movement joining the EU liberal group prompted “screaming arguments” among the party leadership, not least because the French delegation managed what another staffer remembers as “a hostile takeover” by claiming all its top positions.

The current president, France’s Valérie Hayer, attacked another Dutch party, the VVD, for agreeing a coalition deal with Geert Wilders, whose Freedom party is in the ID group, and said she would “discuss” their future in Renew. 

Trickier still for Renew is that its second biggest delegation will be loyal to former Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš. The autocratic billionaire was recently acquitted of fraud over his business’s use of EU funds. 

Welle, a former secretary-general of the parliament, said the deep “structural issues” within Renew, the ECR and ID “could lead to bigger changes” than in previous votes.

In t’Veld said negotiations this time would be “more difficult”. “It is more unpredictable,” she said.

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