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Agenda-setting in the European Parliament - the power of actually turning up

Pelle Christy Geertsen / Mar 2024

European Parliament plenary session. Photo: Shuttersock

 

Why setting the European Parliament agenda matters - and why it should interest you

Whenever the European Parliament meets for a plenary-session, whether in Strasbourg or Brussels, even the most diehard and self-professed EU-experts and pundits frequently ignore the first votes and short debates that always kick off a session. To be honest, for many years I used to do the same, so I blame no one. That being said, doing so could actually lead you to miss both vital stories and clues about the upcoming session and its political conflicts.

The votes and debates I refer to are those relating to the oh-so-boring-sounding Resumption of session and order of business, a point that includes various suggestions for changes to the session. For the uninitiated (or maybe just for those slightly less EU-geeky than me) I can reveal that these suggested changes generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Changes reflecting events and developments that have taken place since the agenda was fixed by the EP’s Conference of Presidents (normally the Wednesday before the session);
  • Formalistic or procedural changes that are deemed necessary;
  • Politically motivated changes, such as adding or removing a debate, calling for a resolution based on a debate - or changing the overall title (and topic) for a planned debate.

While I willingly grant that such last-minute changes to the European Parliament’s plenary agenda are hardly the stuff that draws the big headline in the news coverage of the EU, it does not mean that they are not important or that the patterns we can observe from them cannot be relevant. In fact, before judging the topic out, as I used to do, it is for instance worth remembering, that even if the changes to the agenda themselves are not headline-material, not even in the more specialized Brussels-bubble media outlets, their consequences can actually be just that.

How it has mattered

One fairly typical example of agenda-changes creating headlines and stories came at the end of 2022, just one month before the infamous QatarGate scandal broke - and in connection with the controversial World Cup in Qatar. Here, a change in the agenda changed the will of the majority of political groups leaders (as expressed the previous week), took place. This change meant that instead of merely debating the issue, parliament was now also to create a resolution and therefore also actually take a vote and adopt a formal opinion of the EP - an opinion that future policy work would end up referring to several times.

As we learned from the QatarGate scandal just a month later, it was exactly things like this, that the host country seemed determined to avoid. As some of the stories relating to the scandal have shown, it seems they tried their best, and several times succeeded in trying to water down or stop attempts at documenting that the European Parliament as such was not wholly unconcerned with the conditions of the suffering workers making the World Cup possible.

This is where the Monday resumption of business-point becomes relevant. The battle over whether or not Parliament should actually adopt a resolution was won by those advocating for it, not just through the power of persuasion. No, instead it turned out to be because there were proportionally more Left-of-Centre MEPs present on the Monday afternoon, than what the Right-of-Centre could muster. That resolution met with success, with 181 votes in favour and 165 against, which came as a surprise to many, including on the winning side.

It would also foreshadow a bitter fight about what was or was not to be included in the resolution, and some groups indeed seemed more concerned about inserting praise for the host country, than talking about the migrant workers. An attitude that the scandal the following month definitely did not make look any prettier.

Before the world cup in Qatar, the Left Group in the EP had, for more than a year tried to ensure a debate about the human rights situation and the conditions for the migrant workers building the stadiums and infrastructure. Time and again, however, it had been rejected.

Much more recent are the debates and proposals following the horrific terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October last year. 

One of the interesting things to observe here was how, while in the beginning a call for an immediate ceasefire was mainly a point of the Left Group, this was later picked up by first the Greens, then the S&D, then Renew Europe, and, in the end, by a majority of Parliament.

A prediction of the session to come

If the above still does not convince you that you should start paying attention to the agenda-setting debates and votes of the EP, then consider this angle: analysing this first confrontation of a plenary-session, can provide interesting hints for how the session will turn out, and who might side with whom on certain, contested, topics.

While this interpretive approach is in no way perfect, seeing who supported or rejected the various opening bid for agenda-changes does provide an early bellwether of both the conflicts of the session to come as well as the balance of power.

After all, if Renew for instance sides with the Left-side of the EP in adapting the agenda by adding a resolution or a debate where none was foreseen, it is also likely that the group will end up supporting it.

In the same way, how much or little split there are within the different political groups when the votes on the agenda are taken, can also be a useful indicator of, how unified (or not) the same groups will be on the issue(s) in question, once it gets time to actually vote.

Does the Left have better discipline?

Another interesting dimension can also often be found when studying whom votes what, at the opening of the session: how the balance of power is often different.

Yes, it seems that, for reasons it goes beyond this piece to speculate about, the Left-side of the EP often seems to be better at being present and voting during the opening session than their counterparts on the Right.

For some countries, including my own (Denmark), you may indeed even see rather consistent patterns of the Left almost always being present in proportionally much greater numbers than those on the Right.

Besides obvious statements about how our elected officials should of course also strive to be present and do their jobs, my point is also this: Actually turning up and voting, actively helps shape what is debated and voted upon the following days, and under which headlines. This also means that those not prioritising to be present, at times almost consistently, are actually -whether they realise so or not - paying a political price for their lack of presence.

In the end, setting and forming the agenda has always been an important element in politics, so why should it be any different in the European Parliament?

 

The views expressed are the personal views of the author.

Pelle Christy Geertsen

Pelle Christy Geertsen

March 2024

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