European Parliamentary Research Service Blog

Political Groups in the European Parliament: A historical perspective

Written by Christian Salm,

Paul-Henri Spaak speaking to the hemicycle of the ECSC Common Assembly

Taking a variety of shapes and forms, European transnational party cooperation is a unique international phenomenon. This is true of transnational party cooperation both outside and within the European Parliament. Moreover, transnational party cooperation in the Parliament and elsewhere is key to explaining the success of European integration and the various existing transnational party families at European level are crucial in shaping European politics.

However, when the forerunner of today’s Parliament, the Common Assembly of the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was established in 1952, the creation of transnational political groups was not envisaged at all. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1951 by the ECSC’s six founding states and laying the ECSC’s foundation, did not mention the creation of political groups sharing a same ideology and similar persuasion within the new assembly. Nevertheless, as early as at the first ECSC Common Assembly plenary session in September 1952, it appeared that members would group along political instead of national affiliation. Consequently, at its plenary session in June 1953, and only a couple of months after its inauguration, the Assembly unanimously decided to insert the creation of political groups into its rules of procedure.

According to the Assembly’s rules of procedures, all that was required to form a political group was a declaration of formation, including the name of the group, its executive and the signatures of its members. The only restrictions were: first, that groups be politically, not nationally, based; second, that they have at least nine members; and third, that no individual could belong to more than one group. As a result, three political groups were officially authorised in 1953: the Christian Democratic Group, the Socialist Group, and the Group of Liberals. All three political groups are still represented in today’s Parliament, albeit under other names. With their official authorisation in 1953, the first three political groups began to develop organisational structures and the members’ work within the political groups was gradually strengthened in the following years. Furthermore, the political group bureaus extended their administrative structures, internally resembling the structures of political groups in national parliaments. Nevertheless, the political groups’ structures remained relatively small until the 1970s.

Fostering transnational cooperation at European level became a more serious prospect for Parliament’s political groups during the 1970s. The decision taken at the European Community (EC) summit in The Hague in December 1969, in favour of direct European Parliament elections, provided a new impetus to extend and strengthen their organisational structures. In an influential article published in 1978, the British political scientist David Marquand anticipated a much greater role for political parties and parliamentary political groups, in view of the increased politicisation of the EC in the wake of the first direct elections to the European Parliament scheduled for June 1979. Parliament’s political groups reacted to this decision by setting up more working units dedicated to specific policy areas. In addition, the number of members per political group constantly increased over time, due to various rounds of Community enlargement. Likewise, the number of staff employed by the political groups has grown constantly. While consisting of only a handful of staff in the 1950s, all political groups together employed 1 103 temporary staff members in 2018. As political groups grew and political groups’ staff levels increased, the European Parliament’s expenditure for political groups also increased. In 2017, for example, Parliament gave a total of €60 000 000 to fund the administration of the political groups. Finally, the number of political groups itself has risen. Starting with three political groups in 1953, the largest number of political groups ever to be simultaneously represented in the European Parliament was at the beginning of the 1989-1994 parliamentary term, with ten political groups. At the end of the 2014-2019 parliamentary term, there were eight political groups.

The eight political groups in the outgoing 2014-2019 Parliament in order of size were:

In contrast to earlier times, to form a political group today, a minimum of 25 Members of the European Parliament, elected in at least one quarter (currently seven) of the EU’s Member States is required. Furthermore, recent changes to Parliament’s Rules of Procedure require all members of a new group to declare in a written statement ‘that they share the same political affinity‘ (Rule 33(5)). The President of Parliament must receive notification of a group’s formation in a statement that must contain: (a) the name of the group; (b) a political declaration; setting out the purpose of the group; and (c) the names of its members and bureau members.

Looking back, the political groups’ history shows that, from the very beginnings of the ECSC Common Assembly to today’s Parliament, Members have prioritised political rather than national affiliations, highlighting the supranational character of the institution. It was therefore only natural that, despite their initial omission, it only took a couple of months after the constituent plenary session of the ECSC Common Assembly in September 1952, for the creation of political groups to be suggested.

For more detailed information on the political groups in the European Parliament and their history read: