Shot by both sides

It is always nice when a hunch gets confirmed by data, so thank you to Simon Hix of the LSE for a presentation earlier this week on coalitions within the European Union.  We are continually having to fend off criticisms from the right and left that the EU is too left-wing and right-wing in its policies, respectively (for example, here and here).  Either of these two criticisms might be true, but they cannot both be.  Professor Hix’s data shows in fact that neither criticism is true.

He and his colleagues within the Votewatch project track voting patterns in the European Parliament, including the way in which different groups vote together in support of the legislative proposals.  This analysis reveals who is on the winning side when contested votes take place.  Quite a large proportion of the votes are uncontroversial and unanimous: it is the contested ones that reveal the true party political colour of European policies.

The first conclusion from this presentation is that the policies of the European Union are rather moderate and centrist.  The EP has a co-decision power over most of them, and the chart below reveals which party groups are on the winning side in votes the most often.

It shows that the Liberals (ALDE), the Christian Democrats (EPP) and the Social Democrats (S&D) are the most frequent supporters of proposals, with the more extreme parties of right and left less often in favour of the final outcome.  (The uncontroversial votes mentioned above make up about 30 per cent of the total, apparently, which is why even the most extreme parties still support as many as half the votes.)

But while the three largest groups vote in favour of the most legislation, it is not the case they do so cohesively.  In fact, the shifting patterns of support between those three groups tell an interesting story about the nature of EU policy, revealed by another level of detail in Professor Hix’s analysis.

The chart above shows the policy areas where the centre-right, broadly defined, outvotes the centre-left.  These include the major issues of the economy and competitiveness.  The centre-left, on the other hand, wins on the issues of the environment and gender equality, as shown in the chart below.

What this data depicts is a contest over policy against a background of broad consensus between the largest parties over its direction.  Naturally, if one is a supporter of the far left or the far right, one might well conclude that the EU is adopting the wrong direction, but even the criticism coming from those quarters needs to be tempered by the facts.  Is the EU a neo-liberal project?  If so, it is a form of neo-liberalism supported by social democrats and greens.  Is it a socialist plot?  Only if your definition of socialist includes the mainstream centre-right.

I suppose it is the apparent complexity of the EU system, and the fact that it keeps changing which means that what people once thought was true might not be true any longer, that permits these myths about the party political colour of the EU to spread. More clarity might bring a better debate.  We can hope so.

About the Author