Why transnational lists are good for European democracy

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A general view on the European Parliament during a sitting in Strasbourg, France on 17 January 2017. [EPA/PATRICK SEEGER]

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament, eight influential politicians from all the leading European parties explain why transnational lists will benefit European democracy.

This opinion piece was written by a cross-party group of eight influential MEPs working on electoral reform in the European Parliament. They are listed below.

On Wednesday (7 February), the plenary of the European Parliament will decide on its composition after Brexit. A controversy has emerged especially on the question if a part of the 73 British seats should be used for the introduction of transnational lists, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

We want to answer the most frequent arguments brought forward by opponents of the concept and explain why we think transnational lists would be good for European democracy.

Let us first recall that the European Parliament has called for the introduction of transnational lists on numerous occasions. The first time, in 1998, in the report of then Vice-President of the European Parliament Georgios Anastassopoulos, and most recently in the Parliament’s proposal for a reform of the European electoral law in November 2015. Transnational lists are a well-established demand of the European Parliament.

Transnational lists are not a danger to European democracy, but on the contrary, would enable European citizens to directly vote for their preferred lead candidate, thus completing the innovation of the 2014 elections, when Parliament successfully defended its prerogative to elect the head of the Executive, as is the right of every Parliament in a parliamentary democracy

A fundamental problem of the European elections is the fact that they are not at all European, but the sum of national election laws, election lists, and of national election campaigns. Forty years after the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament, it is high time to give these elections a real European dimension.

European elections should focus on European politics and not be used as national “second-order elections”.

  1. Such constituency would bypass the current link between the members and their electorate. Therefore building upon a more distant and centralized Union, rather than a more democratic and accountable one.

No, it would not. The link would never have been stronger. One person, one vote. No matter where you live. Transnational lists are good for voters. They give them more power at the expense of backroom deals. People will decide who becomes the next Commission president.

  1. The transnational list would be perceived as a drift to centralism.

Transnational lists are an additional element and not replacing the current system. As we have the unique opportunity to use a part of the British seats for transnational lists, no member state will lose a seat due to their introduction. Citizens will still have their representative in the constituency, just as it has been before.

  1. The list would most probably be utilised by populist movements that would then get further visibility and capitalise on extremist views around Europe.

This is a very defensive argument. So, we cannot win against populist and nationalist movements in a Europe-wide democratic competition? We shouldn’t be afraid of democracy. Transnational lists will be used by parties of all political directions and it is our job to win the hearts and minds of the people by having the better arguments.

  1. Transnational lists do not promote democracy; indeed they subvert its logic to an elitist top-down approach.

Voters will get two votes instead of one: they will have twice as much direct influence as they have now. If anything, it will increase democracy and not diminish it. Transnational lists are neither elitist nor top-down. The lists would be established by the members of the European political parties, which are the national parties and individual members, in a transparent and democratic procedure. The process reflects the nomination of lead candidates, which are not perceived as elitist or top-down.

  1. Collecting protest votes all over Europe, populists could end up choosing the next candidate to be president of the European Commission in the next legislature.

Populists can only choose the president of the European Commission if they win a majority in the European Parliament – which would mean that we did a very bad job. It is the Parliament that elects the Commission president. If this argument were valid, why would all populist and national forces be opposing transnational lists?

  1. A European constituency (whose existence is yet far from being agreed upon) would expand the already existing gap between smaller and larger member states.

No, it wouldn’t. In the Council, the French government presented a detailed proposal for the implementation of transnational lists with safeguards to prohibit an over-representation of larger member states:

  • Each list must consist of candidates from at least one-third of the member states
  • The share of nationals from one member state must not exceed 25%
  • The first seven candidates on the list must be nationals from different member states
  • Lists shall alternate between candidates of different member states
  1. It would launch a debate on the status of the MEPs, whether elected through national or transnational lists.

In several of our member states, MPs are elected directly and also through lists. Never has there been any problem in national parliaments between the differently elected MPs. Additionally, in the European Parliament, MEPs are elected in different ways and in constituencies of different sizes and requiring a different number of votes.

  1. Besides, in the absence of a European constituency, it is hard to know to which citizens these putative transnational list MEPs would be accountable.

The Lisbon-treaty, Art. 14 (2) TEU clearly states that “the European Parliament shall be composed of representatives of the Union’s citizens”. Therefore all MEPs, elected on national or European lists, would be accountable to all European citizens.

  1. At the end of the day, a possible transnational list cannot be adopted without the necessary legal basis, which is currently not provided either in the Treaties or in EU Electoral Law.

As the proposal for the Report on the Composition of Parliament clearly states, the European electoral law needs to be adapted to establish a European wide constituency. At the same time, the decision on the composition needs to cater for the necessary seats. Both legal acts are necessary for the creation of transnational lists. The wording of the Report on the composition of Parliament is clear and legally sound in this regard.

  1. Not even the most successfully integrated federations, such as the United States, Switzerland, and Germany, have a single national constituency.

The European Union is a federal entity sui generis, and not an integrated federation as the United States, Germany or Switzerland. In federal states, an integrated party system is usually in place. Thus, in all parts, the same parties run for election. In the European Union, this is not the case. Transnational lists would finally free the electoral campaigns from their national limitations.

Why transnational lists are not a good idea

The Parliament and Council are set to decide on what to do with the 73 seats currently held by British MEPs. However, leaning towards transnational lists is not the answer because it is un-European and undemocratic, writes Gunnar Hökmark.

We are convinced now there is a unique window of opportunity. Because of the exit of the UK from the European Union, no member state will lose a seat in the European Parliament.

Both acts necessary to establish a joint constituency, the reform of the European electoral law and the composition of the Parliament, are under consideration at the moment. And, many member states are in favour of this innovation. Besides France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Belgium, all southern member states, including Portugal, have voiced their support.

List of signees:

Jo Leinen (S&D), Co-Rapporteur on the Reform of the European electoral law and Honorary-President of the European Movement International (EMI)

Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Shadow-Rapporteur on the Composition of the European Parliament

Pascal Durand (Greens), Vice-President of the Greens/EFA group, Coordinator in the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) and Shadow-Rapporteur on the Composition of the European Parliament

Jérôme Lavrilleux (EPP), Vice-Coordinator in the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) and Vice-President of the French delegation

Mercedes Bresso (S&D), Coordinator in the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO)

Sophie in ‘t Veld (ALDE), Vice-President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group

Philippe Lamberts (Greens), Co-President of the Greens/EFA Group

Dimitrios Papadimoulis (GUE-NGL), Vice-President of the European Parliament