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Voting for the European Parliament

March 16, 2012

Writing in EUObserver, Andrew Duff, a British Member of the European Parliament, laments the failure of a series of proposed reforms that he and others advocated as a way to improve elections to the body. The idea of reforming the system of elections to the European Parliament (EP) has been discussed for some time now. Advocates of electoral reform frequently cite several arguments. First, as the table below illustrates, turnout in EP elections has steadily declined since direct elections were instituted in 1979.

Citing this declining turnout, reform advocates argue that changes are needed to reinvigorate interest in the operations of the body. Second, they point out that this declining turnout has come at the worst possible time, as the EP has gained authority over the past decade as a result of recent EU treaties. To reflect the emergence of the EP as a strong legislative body in the new EU, what is needed is a true European demos, in which voters who perceive themselves as European citizens choose between competing parties that offer a different mix of policies on European-wide issues. Finally, in order to create this European demos, some observers argue that stronger European political parties are necessary. EP elections in their current guise are mostly domestic affairs, in which national parties compete on the basis of national themes. True, elected MEPs from the national parties join European political groupings in the EP, and these political groups vote with a fair degree of discipline and cohesion. But there is little voter attachment to or identification with these political groups.

Duff’s proposals, which he introduced in February, were intended to address some of these concerns. Most significantly, the reform would have created a group of 25 MEPs who would be elected from a European party-list. Commenting on Duff’s proposals, Janis A. Emmanouilidis and Corina Stratulat explain the rationale (pdf) behind the 25 pan-European MEPs:

The prospect of a pan-European constituency vote on semi-open lists could offer candidates incentives and opportunities to raise their specific profiles with electors in order to secure visibility and popular support across Member States. The personalisation of EP elections could produce more “colourful” and recognisable European political figures in a post-national political space. Moreover, the introduction of a transnational list could effectively fuel competition among the contenders and encourage them and their parties to campaign on issues of relevance to the whole European electorate.

One question that occurs to this writer is whether this group of 25 is intended to be a final goal, or if the number of pan-European legislators would increase over time. The EP is a rather large legislature, with 754 current members, and it is worth questioning how much influence a group of 25 would have in the body. Proponents of the change speak of the incentives that it would provide to create European-wide party organizations and to campaign on European issues. How strong would these incentives be, however, if only 25 seats are up for grabs?

A further reform proposal that has been discussed would be to give the European Parliament the authority to choose the President of the European Commission, as envisioned by the Lisbon Treaty. Proponents of this change argue that it would strengthen the democratic credentials of the EU. Since the EP is the only directly elected EU institution, the theory goes, giving it the power to choose the Commission President would create a more direct link between European citizens and this powerful position.

Whether that would indeed be the case makes for an interesting discussing in political philosophy. Currently the Commission leader is selected by the European Council, which is made up of heads of state and government. These heads of state and government are democratically elected leaders. So how is it less democratic to have this democratically elected group choose the Commission leader than it would be to give that authority to an institution that most European citizens aren’t even sufficiently interested in to vote for? One idea that Emmanouilidis and Stratulat discuss is to vest this power not in the full EP, but only in the 25 pan-European MEPs.

In any case, as Duff laments in his article, his proposal was never even voted upon in the EP. Thus, it seems unlikely that any major changes in the voting procedure for the EP will come in the near future. Nevertheless, this issue will likely not go away, especially if the downward trend in voter turnout continues in the next election in 2014.

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