At the end of 2006: MEPs brought one of the most heated exchanges ever to take place in the European parliament to a close, when they voted for an amended version of the "Bolkestein" directive on the liberalization of services. On that day, which will not be forgotten, the French socialists broke rank with their allies to oppose the text proposed by one of their German counterparts. The outcome of that battle illustrates one of the little known aspects of the European Parliament: it is an institution with a very strong “culture of compromise,” which often has little to do with national traditions, but can be swayed by ulterior motives.

There are many reasons for this inherent duality. The parliament rules on a wide variety of technical issues, such as fuel quality, telecommunications regulations, and safety standards, which, at the end of the day, only elicit strong opinions from the battalions of lobbyists in the European quarter of Brussels.

Furthermore, even the most politicized votes, are only held after prolonged consultation between institutions that are governed by widely different types of rationale: the Parliament has to operate in conjunction with the Council, which is dominated by intergovernmental reflexes in as much as it convenes the direct representatives of member states, and with the Commission, which is staffed by politicians from the Left and the Right, who are careful to avoid party politics. “The functioning of the Parliament has never been governed by a stable majority or coalition,” says Florent Saint Martin, a parliamentary assistant and lecturer at the Ecole libre des sciences-politiques in Paris. According to Saint Martin, in 2008, nine out of ten votes were carried by a majority of more than 80 % of those present. “This cohesion is precisely what enables MEPs to have a greater impact on the Council and the Commission," claims Olivier Costa, a member of France’s CNRS research centre and co-author with Mr. Saint Martin of a recent book on the European Parliament (Le Parlement européen, La Documentation française, April 2009, 12 euros).

The three main parliamentary groups – the European Peoples’ Party, the socialists and the liberals – play an essential role in establishing a consensus. According to the website, which is staffed by researchers from the Free University of Brussels and the London School of Economics, they each have a rate of internal cohesion of more than 85 % when it comes to votes.

However, interaction between European institutions has not been sufficient to completely eliminate angry disputes over the most important texts to go before parliament, and many texts have highlighted the traditional differences between parties whose frames of reference are often diametrically opposed, before the emergence of a compromise that is submitted to a vote. These include the "Bolkestein" directive, REACH regulations on chemical substances, and issues such as agreement on working hours, the climate package, and the procedures for the "return" of illegal immigrants. “Social and economic questions, the environment and immigration are issues where there is still significant conflict between Right and Left,” emphasizes Mr Saint Martin.

MEPs are not always motivated by political logic to the point where cohesion among the main groups may be weakened. In the course of sessions where a vote is to be held, “They often have two separate division lists, one provided by their political group and another provided by the government of their home country," explains one diplomat who is responsible for monitoring proceedings in parliament, "and let’s not forget the influence of lobbyists.” On the occasion of every important debate, the permanent representatives of certain member states in Brussels provide MEPs from their countries with "position papers" recommending how they should vote. However, MEPs are free to decide on whether they wish to follow this advice.