Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

First defeat of EU's electoral reform

Adelina Marini, July 14, 2011

The proposal for an electoral reform in the European Union of Andrew Duff, a member of the European Parliament (ALDE, Britain) has been rejected because of disputes in Parliament over "for" or "against" more Europe. The disputes reached philosophical and even poetical dimensions, but in the end of the day the conservative MEPs won and the draft was sent back to the Committee on Constitutional Affairs.

Are we mature for more integration in the EU?

This was one of the main questions, asked during the debate in the European Parliament on July 7, that lasted more than two hours. The most controversial element of Mr Andrew Duff's proposal, as euinside wrote, is the idea 25 members of the European Parliament to be elected via a transnational pan-European list, which will be selected by the European political parties and not the national ones. For the purpose a central electoral authority is envisaged to be created that will supervise and verify the results of the elections. According to the author of the draft, rapporteur Andrew Duff, the aim is the European elections to be transformed by giving the political parties a central role by personalising the European dimension in their campaigns.

He added that it was even possible the successor of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to be precisely among those 25 deputies, elected via a transnational list. Before the beginning of the debate, the MEP recalled why now was the most appropriate moment to reform EU's electoral system. Firstly because the time has come "to galvanise European political parties", because most national parties are failing or are unable, or do not want to sustain European integration in a democratic and efficient manner. "Well, when is it ever a good time to do anything in politics or when the popular legitimacy in Parliament is in doubt, is a good time to act. Or when we are installing an economic governance is a good time to give European democracy a greater profile and boost", Andrew Duff added.

"Frankly I doubt if the demonstrators in the Syntagma square [in Athens] are to complain of being offered the choice to vote for two political lists - a national and a European", the MEP went on and reiterated that the envisaged changes in the Treaty of the EU had to be made anyway in order to ensure place for the Croatian MEPs, as Croatia is expected to join the Union on July 1, 2013.

The Commission also has reserves

On behalf of the European Commission, Commissioner Maria Damanaki supported the proposal in general but laid out several arguments, which in her words make its realisation at this stage impossible. She said that the biggest stumbling block is to convince European citizens of the necessity to increase further the number of the MEPs, who are currently 736 but according to the Lisbon Treaty by the end of its current mandate the European Parliament will have 754 members, which is in violation of what's stipulated in this very same treaty - a limit of 751 people. This argument is in contradiction to the main idea of the proposal - the election of 25 supranational MEPs. Saying the idea in principle was good because it would increase the transnational dimension of the European elections, Ms Damanaki emphasized that it was necessary to specify whether the 25 would be additional to the current number of MEPs or would be part of it.

"It was so difficult to reach a compromise on the allocation of seats between the member states that it seems hardly conceivable to reopen such a debate right now. But such a discussion would be essential should the 25 MEPs be part of the hole number here", the Commissioner added. She mentioned another reservation of the Commission - the proposed reform would have to be ratified by all member states, which in some cases meant holding a referendum. "Are you ready to run the risk of a no-vote now?", Maria Damanaki asked rhetorically, explaining that in the current moment of institutional fatigue and economic austerity holding a referendum would be risky, and also the ratification process in national parliaments should not be underestimated.

And another dose of doubt - this reform will hardly be passed by 2014 when the next elections for the European Parliament will be held. It is more likely, but again is very doubtful, the reform to be ready for the 2019 elections, Ms Damanaki concluded.

The most distinct support for the proposal came from the representatives of the European People's Party (EPP). The Hungarian MEP from the group, György Schöpflin, explained in perfect English that the pan-European list actually represented the European interest and was practically an increase of European identity. According to him though, the controversial elements deserve further exploration. "My sense of it is that opposition to the list derives primarily from those who place the short-term before the long-term. Yes it's true in the short-term Europe faces an economic crisis of far-reaching proportions, the future of the euro is far from assured and instruments to resolve the crisis are still being elaborated. Whatever dimension the European crisis would take, it would require more European integration not less and that would unquestionably mean more transfers of more competences and powers to the EU. The power will require representation that is the heart of democracy".

The group of Socialists and Democrats was not active at all in the debate but announced that in general it supported the proposal because the Member States currently were too focused on their national interests and the political parties spoke almost all the time in the national context, which is why very often the European elections are a continuation of national debates, according to Roberto Gualtieri. "We support it but in the same time we support a request for a referral back to the committee [for a revision]", the Italian MEP added.

The liberals also spoke in support of the proposal. Most critical were the independent representatives and the MEPs from the far right conservative groups. British MEP Ashley Fox, from the group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), was the most vigorous opponent of the proposal, stating firmly that his group would not support it. He raised several very serious questions, the main one of which is whom should these MEPs [2 the 25] be accountable to. "Certainly not the people. These new MEPs will be accountable only to the European political party that placed them on the list. They will speak on the party's behalf and answer only to the party hierarchy, not the people". Besides, according to him the 25 new MEPs will be an additional heavy burden for the taxpayers in terms of money and carbon footprint.

"At a time when the EU is seeking to reduce its carbon footprint, do we really need another 25 pan-European MEPs travelling all over their new huge constituency. [...] How do we justify millions more euros on extra politicians and their staff", Ashley Fox asked. Mr Fox's statement provoked three blue cards. According to Olle Schmidt (ALDE, Sweden), currently the MEPs are accountable to those who had elected them, which should be valid for the 25 too. "Is that so strange? Who are you accountable for?", he asked.

To this Ashley Fox responded by saying that a system was needed that would allow an MEP to be sent back when people don't like him. "So, for example, I can be deselected by my party or I can be removed by the electorate of the South-West of England. That will not exist in this system".

The Greens also supported the proposal. On behalf of the group Gerald Häfner (Greens/EFA, Germany) said that such ideas took us closer to achieving European democracy. "I think that if British citizens can vote for a French candidate and vice versa, this will be a huge step forward".

There were also fears that the transnational list will be again a victory for the big member states because, given the voting formula the big countries will elect a candidate of the big countries and states like Malta will never succeed with a candidate. Similar position, but far more extremist, was expressed by Bulgarian MEP Dimitar Stoyanov (independent). His colleague from the EPP, Andrey Kovachev, defended the proposal.

The former chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs in the European Parliament, Jo Leinen (ALDE, Germany), said that in fact it was the small countries that would benefit the most from the transnational list. He gave the example of Eurogroup leader and Prime Minister of small Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, who had proved himself as an influential Europe-wide politician, who will be preferred before a candidate of a big member state.

Spanish MEP Íñigo Méndez de Vigo (EPP, Spain) had a 2-minute emotional and passionate speech that caused applause in the house: "The Lisbon Treaty gives the EP the power to amend the electoral law and that is why we have to do it. We also have to do it because soon we will have new allocation of seats in Parliament when Croatia joins the EU. [...] Some people feel it is too early to go about this but in the end of May 1950, ladies and gentlemen, an adviser told chancellor Adenauer and minister Schuman - chancellor, minister it is too early to issue a Franco-German statement pulling coal and steel. For the conservatives everything is too early. It is always too early for those who do not want change.

For those of us who are in favour of progress, for those of us who have faulty dreams Mr Faulkner said that it is extremely important to have dreams as high as mountains so that we can see them wherever we are and pursue these dreams. The transnational pan-European list is about a dream. It's about poetry, it's about these ideals and that is why the EPP wants to strive a consensus. Paul Valerie said that dreams don't end but are abandoned and we are abandoning it today but we will come back to it later", concluded his speech the Spanish MEP.

In the end of the heated debate, rapporteur Andrew Duff said that the pan-European members will be accountable before the European public opinion, "especially to that category of electorate that is tired and frustrated by the narrowness of national politics".

In spite of this extremely interesting and useful debate in the European Parliament euinside still defends the opinion, expressed in a debate organised by The Capital weekly, that the biggest risk for this reform still is the opening of the Treaty of the EU for amendments. There are not few reasons why amendments are being asked because of the reform of the economic governance.

In a moment when Greece is in actual default and its citizens refuse to accept this; in a moment when solidarity started being perceived as a dirty word in the euro area; and in a moment when there is a need to reform Schengen because of the situation in the South Mediterranean against the backdrop of the failed member states Bulgaria and Romania, opening the Treaty would be equal to opening Pandora's box. Which does not necessarily mean that it will be bad, but it will certainly cause significant repercussions, especially in the weaker member states, which however are a majority in the EU.