With Croatia being warmly welcomed as the newest member of the European Union this week, it’s worth noting the impact and affect a 28th member state will have on the entrenched EU institutions as they approach a critical year in terms of power play and positioning. With the 2014 European elections due to take place in May, and new Commissioners set to be named and appointed at the turn of that year, Croatian incumbents have only a short time to make a mark and stake a claim for re-election. With the introduction of 12 new Croatian MEPs, will this injection of new blood have any impact on the European Parliament? Or will the power-play and campaigning for re-election overshadow any significant impact they could have on the legislative agenda?
Mundane facts to be going on with… On 12th April 2013 the Croatian European elections accrued the 3rd lowest turn-out on record with 20.74% of the 3.7 million population turning up to the ballots, behind Lithuania and Slovakia in 2009 (20.54% and 19.65% voter turn-out respectively). The opposition centre-right party HDZ (Hrvatska Demokratska) gained the upper-hand with a majority of 33.1% of the votes, giving it 6 MEP seats, while the ruling SDP (Social Democratic Party of Croatia) gained 31.1% of the vote, giving it 5 MEP seats – the Labour Party gained 1 seat with its 5.7% vote share. The HDZ MEPs will align with the European Peoples Party (EPP) in the parliament and the SDP with the S&D political group giving an EP make-up as follows: EPP with 271 members, S&D with 190 members. The following 29.3% of the votes failed to gain the minimum threshold of 5% for a single candidate with votes spread between 0.28% and 3.86%.
Now that’s out of the way… Since 2012 the EP has allowed 12 observers from Croatia to take-part in committee and political group meetings so as to familiarise themselves with the processes and intricacies of EP life. Each of these observers has been allowed to take the floor and participate in on-going discussions without the right to vote, in accordance to the rules of procedure. It is expected that each of these observers will have a strong link, at least in the beginning, to the Croatian MEPs to help smooth the transition process and inform them of key policy battlegrounds which acquire their immediate attention. The key act and change of the EP over the course of this year is the shuffle of respective seats per-Member State in line with the Lisbon Treaty capacity of 751 MEPs. With Croatia’s additional 12, there are currently 766 active MEPs, representing 28 Member States in-lieu with the degressive proportionality principle. This will be re-aligned in May 2014 with 13 countries losing MEPs seats to comply with the new regulations. The alterations are as follows: Germany lose 3 MEPs to bring their number to 96 members while Romania, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria, Ireland, Croatia, Lithuania and Latvia all lose 1.
The elected MEPs have so far only offered viewpoints on their respective priorities in-line with their political party base which has been welcomed by the EPP and S&D party groups. The HDZ members are striving for a “social market economy” throughout Europe while outlining their aim to bring as much infrastructure funding through regional development schemes as possible. In one policy however they (the HDZ and SDP) are aligned. Both aim to highlight and engage with cohesion policy with respect to Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This dedication and joint ambition on this crucial aspect of regional development is refreshing and should help to highlight the importance cohesion policy has played, and still does play, in stabilising regions through trade and education.
In essence however, the real affect Croatia’s newly elected MEPs will have, and their ability to voice the concerns of their constituents, is incredibly narrow. MFF discussions which control and outline spending for a 7 year cycle have just been concluded, leaving little to no movement on cohesion policy priorities until 2021. The legislative process is almost at an end until September and although the 4th Quarter of 2013 proves to be a busy legislative schedule, Member State political groups are already lining up their candidates for MEP positions next year. Forcing current members to keep one eye over their shoulder and strictly follow the domestic party line (a 5 year election cycle allows MEPs significant leeway in their first few years to vote as they wish – this period is now well past and MEPs are cosying up to their domestic leaders for support). Even the new incumbents will be side tracked by domestic lobbying and campaigning come January 2014 as the election cycle kicks into gear.
With this in mind, it is difficult to see what impact, if any, this election process will have on significant EP legislature in the near future. It is more a forced democratic offering to the newest Member State, instead of one aligned with clear thinking – never a strong point of the EU. Voter turn-out was always going to be low and by throwing in 12 new MEPs at this time allows no constituent representation at all on the key issues which could effect change. Croatia’s accession has been welcomed throughout Europe, even in the UK, but its ability to act and help decrease the democratic deficit through active representation in the EP is no more than wish. That will come in May 2014.