Do UK MEPs win key positions of power in the European Parliament?

As part of a series on whether the UK is marginalised in the EU, two recent blogs showed that British MEPs are increasingly isolated in roll-call votes in the European Parliament (also here). However, voting records only tell one part of ‘who gets what’ in the European Parliament. Another important issue is who holds the powerful agenda-setting positions in the Parliament.

The European Parliament has two main types of power-positions. First, there are the top offices: the Bureau members, the political group leaders, and the chairs of the 22 committees. The executive Bureau comprises the Parliament’s President, the 14 Vice-Presidents (who chair the plenary sessions), and the five Quaestors (who look after the welfare of MEPs).  The political group leaders (‘Presidents’) together determine the plenary agenda, while the committee chairs shape their committees’ agendas and play a key role in legislative negotiations with EU governments and the Commission in their respective policy areas. These top offices are assigned at the beginning of each five-yearly term and re-assigned half-way through a term.

Second, there are the rapporteurs. A rapporteur is an MEP chosen by his/her committee to write a report on a piece of legislation, the EU budget or another issue. The rapporteur shepherds the report through the committee and the plenary, and leads any negotiations with the EU governments and the Commission. MEPs and political groups compete for these powerful positions, as a rapporteur can usually influence the amendments the European Parliament proposes and hence the eventual shape of the EU law – rather like a ‘sponsor’ of a bill in the U.S. Congress.

Table 1. Key offices held by UK MEPs since 2004

PeriodBureauPolitical Group LeadersCommittee Chairs
2004-06Edward McMillan-Scott (Con), VPGraham Watson (LD), ALDEGiles Chichester (Con), Industry
Jim Nicholson (UUP), QNigel Farage (UKIP), IND/DEMPhilip Whitehead (Lab), Internal Market
2007-09Edward McMillan-Scott (Con), VPGraham Watson (LD), ALDEArlene McCarthy (Lab), Internal Market
Diana Wallis (LD), VPNeil Parish (Con), Agriculture
Jim Nicholson (UUP), Q
2009-11McMillan-Scott (Ind), VPNigel Farage (UKIP), EFDSharon Bowles (LD), Economic & Monetary Affairs
Diana Wallis (LD), VPMalcolm Harbour (Con), Internal Market
Bill Newton-Dunn (LD), QBrian Simpson (Lab), Transport
2012-14McMillan-Scott (LD), VPMartin Callanan (Cons), ECRSharon Bowles (LD), Economic & Monetary Affairs
Nigel Farage (UKIP), EFDMalcolm Harbour (Con), Internal Market
Brian Simpson (Lab), Transport
2014-16Catherine Bearder (LD), QSyed Kamall (Cons), ECRClaude Moraes (Lab), Civil Liberties & JHA
Nigel Farage (UKIP), EFDDVicky Ford (Con), Internal Market
Linda McAvan (Lab), Development

Note: VP = Vice President, Q = Quaestor, LD = Liberal Democrats, ALDE = Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ECR = European Conservatives and Reformists group, IND/DEM = Independence/Democracy group, EFD = Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, EFDD = Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, JHA = Justice and Home Affairs.

Table 1 shows that British MEPs have held several ‘top offices’ since 2004. Two have been Vice-Presidents, three have been Quaestors, four have been political group leaders, and UK MEPs have chaired seven different committees. Of particular note is that a Brit has chaired the powerful Internal Market committee continuously since 2004 (a critical policy area for the UK). Also, in the current Parliament, Brits chair 3 key committees: Internal Market and Consumer Protection (Vicky Ford), Civil Liberties and Justice and Home Affairs (Claude Moraes), and (International) Development (Linda McAvan). The other interesting point is that several UK LibDems have held top jobs, despite having fewer MEPs than the Conservatives, Labour and now UKIP.

But how does this compare to other member states? One way of assessing this is to compare the per cent of MEPs each member state had in each period (2004-06, 2007-09, 2009-11, 2012-14, 2014-16) with the per cent of top offices their MEPs held. Figure 1 shows this comparison, where a member state was ‘Over represented’ if it had more top offices than MEPs or ‘Under represented’ if it had fewer.[1]

Hix - graph 1

Note: The figure shows the % of top offices a member state’s MEPs had in each period between 2004 and 2014 minus the % of MEPs it had in the same period, averaged across all five periods. For example, the UK numbers are: +0.57 in 2004 (11.22% of top offices minus 10.66% of MEPs), +2.06 in 2007, +3.76 in 2009, + 1.54 in 2012, and +1.28 in 2014, which makes an average of +1.84 (show in the figure).

Clearly, larger member states win more top offices than smaller member states, even relative to their number of MEPs, and the largest member state (Germany) does particularly well. This is because when a political group wins a top office, this office almost always goes to an MEP from a larger party delegation with the group, which is usually a party from one of the larger member states.

A more reasonable comparison, then, is between the larger member states, as Figure 2 shows. Here, the green line shows how many top offices a member state should have if the top offices were allocated in a strictly proportional way between the member states. Since 2004, the UK has done well compared to this baseline. However, the red line shows the average proportion of top offices won by MEPs from the larger member states. Compared to this line, the UK has done somewhat worse: winning more top offices in 2009-11, but fewer top offices than the other larger member states in every other period since 2004.

Hix - graph 2

Note: The green line is the 45o line, where the % of top offices would equal the % of MEPs from a member state. The large member states are ‘over-represented’ relative to this line in all five periods. The red line represents the ‘best fit’ line for the data (an OLS bivariate regression between these two variables), which captures the ‘average’ % of offices each member state had in a particular period, given its % of MEPs.

Turning to rapporteurships, Figure 3 shows the proportion of reports relative to the proportion of MEPs from each member state in the 2004-09 and 2009-04 terms.[2] MEPs from the older member states, including the UK, are more likely to win rapporteurships than MEPs from the member states who joined in the 2000s. In fact, UK MEPs (co-)authored 224 reports in 2004-09 and 180 in 2009-14. These included reports on important pieces of legislation, such as the EU Directive on Local Loop Unbundling, which liberalised the EU internet service-provider market, and on which Nick Clegg MEP was able to shape the policy in a more pro-consumer direction. In general, in terms of report-writing, UK MEPs were ‘over represented’ in 2004-09 and slightly ‘under represented’ in 2009-14.

Hix - graph 3

However, not all rapporteurships are of equal value. Authoring a report on piece of legislation where the European Parliament has full legislative power, is clearly more important than authoring a report on an issue on which the Parliament has little power. As a result, Figure 4 shows the pattern for reports on ‘codecision’ dossiers in 2009-14: on all the legislation on which the European Parliament had equal power to amend and block EU laws as the EU governments in the Council. In this term, when it came to key pieces of EU law, UK MEPs author more reports than the MEPs from every other member state except Germany.

Hix - graph 4

In short, UK MEPs have captured many powerful agenda-setting positions. They have been Vice-Presidents, political group leaders, and chairs of important committees. UK MEPs have also won rapporteurships on key legislation, which has enabled them to shape EU law. Moreover, UK MEPs have not been ‘under-represented’ relative to the MEPs from the other big member states. And all this has been despite the growing number of UKIP MEPs, who have not competed for many key offices or rapporteurships.

By Simon Hix, Harold Laski Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Senior Fellow on the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme

And Giacomo Benedetto, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London

[1] These data come from Giacomo Benedetto’s research, including Benedetto, G. (2015) ‘The proportionality of office distribution in the European Parliament, 1994-2012: Who gets the mega-seats?’, presented at the UACES Conference, Bilbao, 7-9 September.

[2] These rapporteurships data are from William Daniel, and Steffen Hurka, Michael Kaeding and Lukas Obholzer.  See William Daniels (2015) Career Behaviour and the European Parliament: All Roads Lead through Brussels? (Oxford: Oxford University Press), and Steffen Hurka et al. (2015) ‘Learning on the Job? EU Enlargement and the Assignment of (Shadow) Rapporteurships in the European Parliament’, Journal of Common Market Studies 53(6) 1230–1247.

The views expressed in this explainer are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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