European elections reform backed by MEPs from three groups only

(Credit: [Vepar5/Shutterstock])

Only MEPs from the EPP, the Socialists & Democrats, and ALDE have voted in favour of making the next European elections more “European”, according to a study published by VoteWatch Europe yesterday (12 November).

According to the resolution passed on 11 November, the next 2019 European elections should be fought with formally endorsed, EU-wide lead candidates (“Spitzenkandidaten”) for the Commission presidency.  It says these candidates should stand for election to the EP themselves, and be formally nominated at least 12 weeks before the elections.

The last 2014 European elections were fought with five “Spitzenkandidaten” of the EPP, S&D, ALDE, the Greens and the European Left, but in fact there was no guarantee that the group would ultimately elect such candidates, and the process of their nomination varied substantially.

Also, the resolution strengthens the right to vote abroad and provides for online and postal-voting systems should therefore be made available in all EU member states. Four countries did not provide for citizens living abroad to vote in the 2014 European elections (Czech Republic, Ireland, Malta, Slovakia).

For bigger EU countries, the resolution foresees mandatory thresholds for obtaining seats in the European Parliament, ranging from 3 to 5% of the vote. Compared to today’s system, this means that Spain and Germany would need to introduce thresholds.

The Treaty of the European Union gives the Parliament the right to initiate a reform of the European electoral law by formulating proposals, which the Council will have to decide upon by unanimity. Then, the amendments to the European Electoral Act are submitted for ratification to the member states. 

If the process succeeds, this would be a reform of the EU electoral law which dates back to 1976.

The resolution, which was the brainchild of rapporteurs Danuta Hübner (EPP, Poland) and Jo Leinen (S&D, Germany), was passed by 315 votes to 234, with 55 abstentions.

>> Read our interview with Jo Leinen: Parliament mulls ‘first steps’ to reform EU elections before 2019

It looks however that neither the Green/EFA group, nor the leftist GUE-NGL group has backed the resolution. It is not a surprise that the conservative ECR group and the anti-EU EFD and ENF groups have voted against.

But even in the EPP, S&D and ALDE groups, there has been an important number of defectors, Vote Watch Europe shows.

Within the EPP, the strongest opposition came from the Hungarian delegation of Viktor Orbán, whose positions seem to be drifting further away from that of the EPP, and more towards that of the ECR. Their Latvian colleagues, part of the main governing party in Riga, also opposed the resolution. So did the Swedish conservatives who, even if less vocal, have reservations towards strengthening the EU, and their Socialist fellow countrymen, also expressed strong reservations in the EP voting session. The same goes for the Dutch CDA/EPP members.

Significantly, two out of the three Luxembourgish party colleagues of Commission President Juncker voted against the reforms (the third one, former Commissioner Viviane Reading, was the only one who voted in favour).

One key provision of the draft resolution was asking that the European political parties receive equal visibility with national parties on the ballot papers, in the media and on electoral campaign materials. This proposal fell in the plenary, as the majority of the EPP group and a minority of the S&D and ALDE groups voted against it.

The creation of a joint EU-wide constituency, in which lists are to be headed by each political family’s nominee for the post of President of the Commission was approved by 360 votes in favour to 237 against. EPP+S&D+ALDE+Greens/EFA pushed this through, but important disagreements were noted in the EPP (where the French, Hungarians, Swedish, Slovakians, Latvians, as well as two of Juncker’s Luxembourgish colleagues voted against). Notably, the British from across the political spectrum opposed (conservatives, socialists, greens, eurosceptics).

Chances of the reform to be adopted

Doru Frantescu, director and co-founder of VoteWatch Europe, writes that if adopted, the rules will be a big leap forward towards the “Europeanisation of the European elections”, which until now have been seen as “second-order national elections”.

In his opinion, the biggest issue which will face opposition in the Council is the nomination of a leading candidate (for the Presidency of the Commission) by the European political parties, which has very small chances of passing in the current composition of the Council, which includes prime-ministers Cameron and Orbán, who also opposed Juncker’s nomination. Moreover, the newly elected Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, has reinforced the opposing camp. However, if the text will not specifically say “candidates for the European Commission Presidency”, but simply “leading candidates”, this would still have a chance, says Frantescu.

The Vote Watch Europe director also thinks the issue of the electoral thresholds, which will be disputed in countries such as Germany, where the Constitutional Court has abolished the threshold for the 2014 European elections. However, if the new rules will be stated in an EU law, the position of the Court is likely to be different, says Frantescu.

After the vote, Greens/EFA vice-president Josep Maria Terricabras regretted the proposal to introduce an obligatory threshold for obtaining seats in the European Parliament, ranging from 3 to 5% of the vote.

"The proposal to introduce an obligatory threshold in European elections is at odds with the principle of proportionality set out in EU law. Thresholds necessarily undermine the representation of smaller parties and negatively impact on political pluralism, which is a foundation of the European Parliament. While this provision would initially only apply to large constituencies, it is a worrying precedent.

He also regretted what he called a missed opportunity to introduce transnational lists.

"The failure to send a clear message on transnational lists in European elections is seriously disappointing. For years, there have been efforts to give the elections a truly European context, with a view to encouraging voters to look beyond narrow national issues and make decisions on a more European basis. Our group has long supported transnational lists and believes the failure to give clear support to the designation of a small proportion of seats for European lists is an opportunity lost. Instead, MEPs have passed the buck to EU governments to decide by unanimity”.

Kazimierz Ujazdowski  (Poland), who is shadow rapporteur of the conservative ECR group, said the Parliament’s “non-binding report” interferes “seriously” with the rights of member states.

ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt, responsible within the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs for a report on the future of Europe, said that if the proposals by the Parliament receive support of the Council, they would fundamentally change the electoral law on how MEPs are elected.

“In future, a joint constituency would be established in order to allow the direct election of candidates, presented by European political parties, for the function of President of the European Commission. This text also aims to further harmonize the organization and voting conditions of the European elections in the member states”, Verhofstadt said.

The President of the Party of European Socialists (PES) Sergei Stanishev said the reforms would give European Political parties more visibility and bring us closer to European people by making the affiliation to the national parties clear. “In doing that we can engage with voters, especially young people”, Stanishev said.

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