Brexit, gender and power in the European Parliament

In the final post of EUGENDEM’s #EUelections2019 pre-election series, Cherry Miller looks at the impact of Brexit on the European Parliament’s political groupings. She examines political struggles within the EP, how political groupings may approach candidates with records of discriminatory behaviour, and how this overall relates to a broader UK political culture. EP groups, though potentially powerful gender equality actors, are relatively unknown to UK citizens and this has been marked and problematic.


Political struggles within the EP

The European Parliament has carved out for itself, a larger role in the Brexit negotiations. One such body is the Brexit steering group that consists of a representative from five of the political groupings, and the chair of AFCO, to unite the views of the Parliament. This group has featured in the documentary: Brexit, behind closed doors. The documentary showed masculinised camera shots of ties hanging, car racing, and arguments between two members of the steering group: Brok and Verhofstadt, that were subsequently reported in the UK press as ‘showdowns’. The dynamics of this group and the broader EP could change after the election since the withdrawal agreement may need to be agreed upon again by new MEPs who may have a different approach towards the UK’s exit.

In terms of the numerical composition of the political groups, the political groupings’ secretariats – that is, the permanent staffing structure of the groupings, hired by the group, have been looking ahead in terms of group formation to attract parties, because groups need twenty five members from seven member states. If UK MEPs do not take up their seats, or only sit until October 31st, this could conceivably cause difficulties for the ECR and the EFDD who have large UK delegations. Some EPP MEPs criticised Tusk and Juncker for supporting an extension to Article 50 because the EPP had little to gain from re-elected British MEPs. Julie Girling, a former MEP who switched from the ECR to the EPP herself has suggested that she is going to vote Lib Dem in the European Elections and is not re-standing. Furthermore, if UK MEPs are excluded from formally approving the President after the Spitzenkandidaten process, meaning Timmermans who is considered as a forerunner, will lose the UK Labour delegation’s votes.

Brexit has also increased power struggles within the European Parliament in other fora. First Vice President, Mairead McGuinness reminded a UK MEP who was heckling in a Brexit debate “this is not the House of Commons”. Brexit has driven affective speeches by UK MEPs in that refer to life and death. Like Sarah Childs has discussed with regard to the UK House of Commons, our research pilot has observed that beneath the speeches in the plenary, the daily grind in the EP’s corridors is also important. Emotional labour has been reported by predominantly female UK MEPs who have cited shame and embarrassment at the behaviour of their counterparts’ approaches to the chamber, who make insulting speeches. Likewise, staffers and MEPs have felt misrecognition from Remain-supporting colleagues who some themselves identify as being culturally European, and reject the EU on an economic and political basis. Brexit has also significantly guided expertise and business within the European Parliament’s political groups. The GUE/NGL for example has been vocal and learnt from expertise on the Northern Ireland border in their group meetings.


European parliamentary candidates

The European Parliament’s political groupings do not have the power over the selection of candidates, this is a power that rests with national political parties. In the eyes of the political groups, they cannot plan for all of the candidates, since candidates are elected on different systems which lend different degrees of predictability. However, actors in political groupings are not without agency on this matter, even if the whip does not work in the same way.A Secretary General of a political grouping or the political group leader, whilst not interfering with an MEP’s mandate, could undertake to ensure a culture where sexual harassment trainings and inductions are mandatory and regularly reviewed since as Valentine Berthet writes, this has been a significant issue that came to the fore in the 8th parliament. Leaders and Secretary Generals in the political groups could exercise caution about allowing successful candidates with problematic records into political group leadership positions. These factors could also be considered in the formation of political groupings. At the very end of the 8th European Parliament, three UKIP female MEPs, one who is a former spokesperson for UKIP on women and equalities, left UKIP, and the ENF over rape comments made by a candidate. Leaving national delegations and groupings, arguably carries both numerical and symbolic power, but is not a substitute for stricter electoral rules on candidates.

The diversity and conduct of candidates has arguably been problematic. In terms of diversity, the Liberal Democrats abandoned their ambition in London to improve LGBT and ethnic minority representation. This may be an example of Celis et al’s research that Mikko Saarinen cites in his post on institutional racism, whereby gender quotas can interact problematically with race. The SNP have a list of six candidates, three men and three women, but men occupy the top two positions on the list, though the party hopes to gain a third (and female) MEP.The Brexit Party and Change UK’s ‘star candidates’ have both been critiqued as being from quite elevated backgrounds, which plays problematic with appeals to ‘ordinary’ voters.

In terms of conduct, there has been a lack of adequate candidate vetting by the main parties with regards to racism and violence against women. In a statement, the Electoral Commission suggested there is ‘limited grounds to disqualify an individual from standing for election’ and that it is a matter for the UK parliament to legislate for. Violence towards politicians is at ‘unprecedented levels’ and violence in civil society is also at heightened levels. Tommy Robinson referring to a non-actual future event, pledged to donate his MEP salary to victims of child grooming. Women’s groups said that they would reject this money, citing his history of (inciting) violence. The European Commissioner for internal security described hatred directed towards Jess Phillips MP as shameful for British politics, but this is occurring in other EU member states too.


A dearth of national information on the political groupings

The European Parliamentary elections are an opportunity for furthering discussions of gender, power and the European Parliament and the role of the EP’s groupings in contributing to gender-equal policies. However, Roberta Guerrina et al point towards a precedent from the referendum: that social justice, gender and equality were systematically excluded from campaigns in favour of ‘high salience’ issues. The party manifestos theoretically could raise awareness about the role of gender and the groupings (if they are read and widely campaigned on) since it has been argued that the case has not been properly advanced in the past about the specific ways the EU and certain political groups cooperation at the EU level helps women and minorities. The Brexit Party and the Conservative Party do not have manifestos. The Brexit Party has what it terms as a ‘clear message’: ‘Democracy’ (a contested term) and argue that policies would follow later. UKIP have been clear about their voting strategy within the European parliament in their manifesto, but the Brexit party needs to be clearer about the strategy it wishes to take in the Parliament.

Labour’s manifesto includes a comprehensive strategy on disability across the EU following UN recommendations and working with the broader Party of European Socialists. However it suggests: ‘We will ensure women are equally represented across political and decision-making structures’. But it is not clear which power positions are being  referred to since many (though not all) powerful EU positions have already been put in motion such as PES’s male Spitzenkandidaten and the appointments to the European Central Bank Executive Board. The Lib Dems detail very specific policies on gender-equality, however the attention-grabbing ‘bollocks to Brexit slogan contrasts with the sentiment around respect and increasing participation in their manifesto. The Green party argues for legal abortion to be included in the EU’s charter of fundamental human rights, and the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour argue for the Istanbul Convention to be ratified and adopted in the UK and all EU member states. Plaid Cymru’s European manifesto includes an infograph on the political groups voting records on LGBTQI issues, showing that the Greens/EFA political group has consistently voted in favour of LGBTQI rights. UKIP’s manifesto does not refer to equalities, and instead is ‘for’ free speech and ‘stands against ‘political correctness. The SNP’s manifesto, perhaps quite surprisingly, includes no mention of women or gender, though does refer to human dignity.

Though unlikely to be electorally successful, Change UK have not been scrutinised on how they might organise themselves in the European parliament vis-a-vis the political groupings after the election, in order to take up their mantle as ‘rule-makers’. This is important for their policy on gender. It is likely that they would sit in a liberal grouping that might be socially liberal but economically liberal too. Furthermore, Change UK’s Charter for Remain arguably in some parts maintains the status quo with statements: ‘remain in good health’, ‘remain prosperous’, which could be considered as problematic discourse since prosperity and good health are distributed very unevenly in the UK, though this inequality may indeed worsen even further with Brexit. Gender is mentioned under humanitarian aid in the document. The position of UK MEPs overall still remains contingent on the unfolding of events over the next few weeks.


Multiple perspectives in the UK and polarisation

In terms of these elections as forces for mobilisation, UK political culture is incredibly polarised in debates surrounding Brexit. The main cleavage in the UK society is now between Remain and Leave rather than support for a political party. The parliamentary parties are divided too. Individuals in the Conservative Party have expended considerable energy over whether to collaborate with Labour and have alienated MEPs, MPs and local activists. The Remain-supporting party landscape is arguably too crowded a market for pro-remain voters since Change UK, the Lib Dems and the Greens are not coordinating their campaigns. Instead there is macho talk of ‘cannibalising’ each others voters. Notable tactical voting websites have been created, a tactic advocated by campaigner and lawyer, Gina Miller.

There are broader issues about whether these elections can really be treated as a proxy for a second referendum or as ‘the ultimate protest vote’, since the elections are formally about electing representatives to serve communities. However, since Theresa May is putting her deal before parliament again in early June, it is unknown how long the MEPs will serve for before or past 31st October and so this complicates any straightforward principal-agent model of representation.

Turnout in the UK for the European Parliamentary elections has never exceeded 38.5%. Across Europe turnout was 42.54% in 2014, though the 2019 elections are unique  Some argue that the 2016 referendum campaign did not produce high quality engagement for women, though women as a whole narrowly voted to remain. Sophie Walker from the Women’s Equality Party has long campaigned for a second referendum, on the argument that this would be a first referendum for many, since women were systematically excluded in the expertise and coverage in the 2016 referendum. Lisa McKenzie’s ethnographic research in Nottinghamshire mining towns and East London communities argues working class women who she spent time with experienced political agency in the first referendum and felt they had a voice. Therefore, there are multiple valuable interpretations and claims for women regarding these elections.  Healing the divisions across perspectives and groupings will be a difficult task.

To conclude, Brexit has altered power struggles in the European parliament and has shown the dynamics of gender and power within the political groups. The European Elections highlight a lack of information about the political groupings and this is important for policies on gender.  The blogpost has highlighted actors in the background of the political grouping who may be able to act on gender inequality, but this is not a substitute for adequate rules on candidates. Research in EUGENDEM continues to explore these gendered dynamics in the 9th parliament.


Cherry Miller is a Postdoctoral Researcher and ethnographer in the EUGENDEM project, researching gender and inequalities and the political practices of the European Parliament’s political groupings.