Calls have been made for the structure of the European elections to be altered. But the ramifications of such a move could have a huge impact on EU politics, writes Nicholas Whyte.
Nicholas Whyte is a director at APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office, and a Visiting Professor at Ulster to the Faculty of Social Sciences University.
The European Parliament recently called for a series of changes to future elections of its own members, including a common minimum voting age across EU states, electoral thresholds in the larger countries, guaranteed voting rights for EU citizens living abroad, and a requirement to finalise candidate lists promptly.
Most of all, the Parliament wants to enshrine the Spitzenkandidat system used in the 2014 election by setting up a single EU-wide electoral constituency, for which all transnational European parties would nominate their Spitzenkandidaten.
But how would this look in practice? Last year, the centre-right European People’s Party claimed victory, and anointed Jean-Claude Juncker as the voters’ choice, by winning 215 seats in the new European Parliament, to the 185 won by the Party of European Socialists, who supported European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
It is not generally realised that if there had been a single EU-wide constituency, Schulz would likely have been the winner. The fact is that the EPP got slightly fewer votes than the PES, but ended up with more seats.
Figures which also include votes for MEPs who joined the groups after the election, give the PES 40.2 million votes to the EPP’s 38.6 million; my own calculations, counting only those who were affiliated on election day, make the gap much narrower, 39.6 million to 39.3 million, but the outcome is still clear.
The EPP won more seats with fewer votes for three reasons. First, the EPP is stronger than the PES in most of the smaller EU member states, where MEPs represent fewer electors per capita. So, rather small leads in terms of votes delivered disproportionate benefits in terms of seats in Slovenia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Croatia, Ireland and Bulgaria. Denmark was the only smaller state where the PES won more seats than the EPP.
Secondly, the PES lead in votes was diluted in some countries by relatively high turnout. Among the enthusiastic voters of Italy, the Partito Democratico won 31 seats, with 11 million votes, while three EPP groups won 17 seats between them with just under 6 million votes.
However, that 14-seat margin in favour of the PES, gained by 5 million more votes, was more than counterbalanced by the result in low-turnout Poland, where two EPP groups had a combined lead of only 2 million votes over the centre-left, yet won 18 more seats.
Thirdly, the electoral system in some countries, whether by accident or design, favours the EPP. In Belgium and in Italy, there are reserved single seats for German-speaking minorities, who tend to vote for EPP-affiliated candidates.
In Ireland, Fine Gael won four seats for the EPP – 36% of the country’s 11 seats – with only 22% of the votes, while Labour, with 5% of the votes won no seats at all. Fine Gael actually won fewer votes in Ireland than ALDE-linked Fianna Fail; but the latter elected only one MEP, and he promptly defected after the election.
Looking further down the ticket, the situation becomes even murkier. The third-placed party in the European Parliament at present is the conservative ECR grouping, with 75 MEPs. But in terms of the popular vote they came not third but seventh, with 8.6 million votes to 9.2 million for the Greens/EFA, 10.8 million for the UKIP-led EFDD, 11.7 million for the liberal ALDE and just over 12 million for the hard-left GUE, who have only 51 MEPs. Like the EPP, the ECR benefited from picking up easily won seats in smaller countries, and by doing well in two large countries with low turnouts, the UK and Poland.
Those who want to open up the strengths and weaknesses of the European Parliament elections to further public interest should be careful what they ask for – because they may get it. It is entirely possible to imagine a situation where a Spitzenkandidat wins a decisive lead in the EU-wide popular vote, but his or her party lags badly in terms of seats in the European Parliament. Arguably that is actually what happened last year. A single European constituency, by exposing the disconnection between votes won and seats gained, may weaken the credibility of the process in practice.