Europe

EU votes show strong UK dissent - Votewatch study

MEPs voting in European Parliament - file pic Image copyright AFP
Image caption The European Parliament has shifting multi-national alliances, depending on the issue

A study of EU politicians' voting patterns shows that the UK government is by far the most likely to disagree with the majority.

The study also shows that British and Czech conservative MEPs were the ones who most often defied ministers in the same party, in the European Parliament.

The study, by transparency group Votewatch Europe, covers the period from July 2009 to December 2012.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for looser UK ties with the EU.

He says the UK must negotiate a new settlement with the EU, to repatriate a range of powers from Brussels, and then put that deal to a national referendum by 2018 on whether to stay in the EU or leave.

Voting figures for the EU Council - the grouping of ministers, according to policy area - show that the UK government voted against or abstained 38 times out of 373.

The next most likely to oppose the majority were Austria (23 times) and Germany (22 times). All three countries have coalition governments.

In contrast, the governments of France and Lithuania were never in the minority, Doru Frantescu of Votewatch Europe told BBC News. "They didn't want to show people back home that they had lost," he said, whereas the UK government "wants to show the British public that it opposes EU legislation more than other governments".

The figures suggest other member states are generally more comfortable with EU legislation than the UK, he said.

Policy divisions

After the 2009 European elections the UK Conservatives formed a new Eurosceptic grouping - the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

Previously the Conservatives were in the European People's Party (EPP) - the main centre-right bloc - but Mr Cameron objected to the EPP's generally federalist vision of the EU.

A leading UK Conservative MEP, Ashley Fox, told BBC News that differences sometimes arose between the ECR and the UK government because nationally the Conservatives were in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats - a more pro-EU party.

One such difference was over the UK government's support for the EU - as a whole entity - to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights. "The EU wishes to sign in its own right, and the coalition government thinks that's good, but the ECR voted against it," Mr Fox said.

The party whip system for ensuring voting discipline is less strict at the European Parliament than at Westminster, he explained.

In the ECR, he said, "we are quite relaxed about the national whip being separate [from the group whip], because we regard the nation state as the building block of democracy - the constituents at home are more important than any pan-European view".

Most EU legislation results from negotiations between the Council and Parliament, and on most issues they have an equal say.

Voting in the 27-nation Council is usually by qualified majority - that is, votes are weighted according to a country's size. Similarly, population determines the size of national delegations in the Parliament.

Votewatch says the areas where MEPs most often disagreed with ministers from the same parties were budgetary issues and the new economic management powers given to the EU.

The EPP has a clear majority in the Council and Parliament in the areas of economic and monetary policy and international trade.

But sometimes a centre-left majority holds sway in the Parliament on environmental or civil liberties issues, and in such cases there is often legislative gridlock, Votewatch says.

French, Italian and Polish MEPs in the EPP group dissented relatively rarely from their party allies in the national government.

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