European elections: national lists, European parties?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

European elections are currently contested by national or local parties. [European Parliament/Flickr]

Pro-European circles generally believe that only transnational lists can make elections to the European Parliament more European. But the proposal is unlikely ever to be accepted by the Council. Pierre Jouvenat considers an alternative.

Pierre Jouvenat is a former UN/WTO senior official and a European federal activist.

Should European transnational political parties exist, there would be no need for transnational lists. In most federal states, there is a single party for each political family and federal election processes are essentially managed in local constituencies by the relevant local bodies of the competing parties. None of these states has one single constituency, not even Switzerland, a small country (in Germany, the second vote for elections at the Bundestag is exercised at Länder level). Since the setting-up of transnational parties should be the ultimate objective in moving towards “an ever closer union”, great care must be taken not to depart from this long-term vision.

Yet, the two-vote system implied by transnational lists perpetuates the distinction between European and national parties. It might divide instead of federating. Concerns have been raised that it would create a two-tier parliament. More importantly, there is a risk that the vote may be misinterpreted by the electorate, which might consider voting ‘European’ with the transnational list only and ‘national’ for the vast majority of the seats that would still be disputed by national parties.

Preferably, as long as European and national parties are viewed as distinct entities, all votes should be cast for European parties, while current regional constituencies are maintained. There are at least seven good reasons to consider this alternative seriously.

First, the whole electoral process becomes a collective undertaking of European parties and their national counterparts, the latter ensuring logistical support in campaigning. Elections are a unique opportunity to reinforce synergies within a political family.

Second, campaigning is inevitably centred on European issues and manifestos, just as it would be with transnational lists. Truly pan-European campaigns are devised and coordinated at European level, but run in a decentralised manner by national parties. Campaign materials and ballot papers provide information about which national parties support the European party (i.e: the reverse of what has been proposed so far).

Third, a strong psychological impact is guaranteed when a German citizen, for example, casts his or her vote for the EPP, rather than the CDU. This is an excellent way to get away from supporting or sanctioning the national government in place, even when national lists are used. Voters will finally realise what is at stake.

Fourth, the electorate votes for candidates close to them, whom they are likely to know. Even though MEPs represent all Union citizens, an elected official must report to the electorate. This can only be done in a local constituency. A limited number of nearby candidates opens the door to a generalised preferential voting system and, possibly, to a two-vote system similar to the German model.

Fifth, Parliament’s seats are allocated based on the electoral results of European, not national parties, using the “double proportionality” method advocated by Professors Oelbermann and Pukelsheim. This reduces, as much as can be realistically envisaged, MEPs’ accountability to the local apparatus of their political family. MEPs become assimilated to a limited number of well-identified European parties and no longer to a constellation of small national parties. The Parliament gains legitimacy.

Sixth, each of the above advantages of this electoral procedure applies to all MEPs. Transnational lists would necessarily be limited to a relatively small number of seats, unless it is deemed convenient to have closed party lists with hundreds of names. The Parliament’s homogeneity is preserved.

And finally, this alternative to the common constituency is more likely to be accepted by member states. National quotas are preserved. National prerogatives in the whole electoral process are maintained until such time as an agreement for the “uniform procedure” foreseen by the Treaties is at last reached. Of course, member states remain to be convinced that, in the context of European elections, European actors, which are no less than the European partners of national parties, have a legitimate role to play and should be given visibility.

Among the transnational lists’ objectives, only one (which has become the major one over time) cannot be achieved: the institutionalisation of the Spitzenkandidaten practice, which has already been rejected by the Council. However, in view of the position of the Council’s legal service, it is preferable to deal with this issue separately and explicitly.

Making European elections more European is not a matter of constituency: it rather depends on which message is conveyed and by whom. With the key objective of establishing transnational parties in mind, the immediate priority is to Europeanise national parties, which are best placed to bring a local foundation and citizen participation to European integration. A bottom-up rather than top-down approach.

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