Leinen: Parliament mulls ‘first steps’ to reform EU elections before 2019

Jo Leinen [SPD]

The European Parliament will vote next week on the reform of the EU electoral law. Nine steps are proposed to make the EU elections more visible and more European. However, there is no mention of the the European transnational lists which would have been the real breakthrough, German MEP Jo Leinen (SPD) told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview. 

Jo Leinen is a Member of the European Parliament and currently sits on the Committees for Environment, Foreign and Constitutional Affairs. He is also President of the European Movement (EMI). Together with Polish MEP Danuta Hübner (Civic Platform), he drafted the European Parliament proposal on the reform of the EU electoral law.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.

You have spent the last year working with Danuta Hübner on the reform of the EU electoral law to find a lasting remedy to record declining participation rates in EU elections. Lessons have been learned from the 2014 EU elections. What are they?

We have to make the European elections more attractive and more European. In our proposal, we have introduced a few new measures to achieve this objective.

We think that the voting age should be lowered across Europe to 16, as young people should engage with the European idea from an earlier age. In our opinion, 16 is old enough for young people to express themselves in a vote.

The second innovation is that we should make it easier to vote, by switching to e-voting, exploring electronic voting.

We know that millions of people are not living at home, they have moved for various reasons, so electronic voting would simply make it easier to vote.

At the same time, we think that we could allow EU citizens living in third countries to vote in the elections. That doesn’t happen in most member states. We think that voting by mail would also be a good idea. Removing hurdles to voting and making it easier is our ultimate goal.

In certain member states, these proposals would necessitate constitutional change. Would this be a hurdle to overcome for the next elections? Could it be done?

When we make EU laws, we always change national legislation. That’s the usual consequence of harmonising European standards. For European democracy, the effort is worthwhile to ask the member states to work together towards higher and better standards.

I’m not entirely sure if constitutional change would be necessary or if legislative change would be sufficient. In our proposal, we have provisions to change the electoral act of 1976, these amendments would be directly binding to all member states. We also have recommendations to make the elections more attractive and transparent.

The voting age might require constitutional change?

The voting age is a recommendation, not a binding requirement. It is a package of proposals, binding and non-binding.

E-voting is an interesting and innovative idea. It was implemented in a number of countries. It went really well in Estonia, but in a number of countries (UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands) it was discontinued. Would the next elections be too soon for such a system to be successful? There is fear that it can be manipulated.

In our proposal, we, of course, mention secure data and system-reliability. For e-voting, other elements would be necessary, like user registration etc.

The creation of a European Intranet could be created, to reduce the chance of data being exposed, keeping it off American servers, for example.

I think that technology is enabling us to build a safe European election and data system. We have to look to the future. The next elections is only four years away, the one after will be in nine years. The younger generation was born digitally. They want to just click, not got to public buildings with a ballot paper. We have to modernise.

Of course, e-voting is only one option next to the current ballot paper. It would be a dual system, as it is not just young people voting. The older generation have to be kept in mind also.

One of the major innovations of the last elections was the Spitzenkandidaten process. This is a process that is here to stay. But will we make it more effective to boost participation?

Yes. Next to our objective of making the European elections more accessible and attractive, is the objective of making them more European.

Making the European dimension visible and building up the European democratic infrastructure is a part of this. We want to secure elements of the European democratic infrastructure.

The Spitzenkandidat process is just a part of this. It should be continued and guaranteed. In the electoral acts, we have an article that stipulates that the European political parties should nominate their Spitzenkandidaten, their top candidates, at least 12 weeks before Election Day, so that the candidates can campaign throughout Europe.

The other element in making the elections more European is, again, to make the political parties visible throughout the campaign. One of our binding proposals would be that on the ballot papers, the logos and the name of the affiliation of national parties be made clear and visible. The same would be true of TV advertising and media spots. National and European party affiliation would always be visible –a European flag next to a national party logo.

It would help raising awareness, making it clear that it’s not a national election for national parties, but people vote for the ideas of European political families. So that’s one important element of our proposal. Additionally, and this may be just specific to France, the household gets the manifesto of the party. We would require that the European manifesto of the party gets delivered as well.

What about transnational lists?

That would be the final breakthrough. It’s the strategic element that allows European parties to campaign and fight for European mandates.

Because of the painful experience of the last two legislatures, the resistance to European lists, we have now decided to take a two-track approach, one with our reports for the 2019 elections and the second step, with the report by Guy Verhofstadt on the future of the EU, where, I hope, European lists will be part of our European Parliament proposals.

For European lists, we need a convention (to) discuss with our colleagues in the national parties and governments. The Parliament has shown it is unable to come forward and make a clear proposal.

This is my criticism. We are anxious what European lists will mean for national quotas, party quotas etc. There is a little bit of difficulty in understanding. 25 or 75 mandates being distributed by European lists, this number would be deducted from the existing national quota. Obviously, there is a lot of anxiety about this, especially from EU-sceptics. We need a broader debate about how we create European democracy. The next convention would be the place to push this idea.

So, transnational lists are not for the next election then?

No. We want to have it mentioned in our report, but not as part of the mandatory binding elements in the electoral act, because we feel that the Parliament wouldn’t accept it and the Council definitely wouldn’t. It would endanger the other progress we have made. The feasible elements are what we are going to concentrate on.

The threshold of 3%?

Equality of chances to get a mandate, we have this 3-5% threshold, which we discovered is only really relevant to Spain and Germany. All the other countries have it by law or by fact of the number of mandates. In Germany, it’s problematic because our constitutional court has crushed the threshold to 0, with the effect that a 0.5-0.6% threshold could get you into the Parliament. That is how the president of the neo-Nazi party gets himself a seat. We need to have a level playing field across Europe.

Was there anything else that you wanted to put into the electoral act, but which you didn’t think would go through?

One point on gender equality. We propose a so-called zipped list where in the next Parliament there would be a 50:50 split between men and women. A lot of my colleagues have come to me and asked whether this would be entirely necessary.

I think it would be a breakthrough to have an electoral law where gender equality is so prominent. It would be a huge innovative element.

Besides European lists that weren’t included, to answer your question, everything else – 9 different elements, are all in there. The real difference would be made by the European lists, the breakthrough for European political parties and debate.

Citizens having two votes, one for the European list, one for the national lists, would reinforce the idea that this is a European election, not just some national controversy about the national government, which is quite often the case. But we are not there yet. This is just the first step. The real breakthrough to more Europe, I hope, will come. We are struggling at the moment to defend what we have. Feasible steps are necessary.