Why transnational lists matter for EU democracy

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Alberto Alemanno [HEC/YouTube]

We can’t dream of a better political arena for the next political leaders to grow up with an authentically European understanding of what’s next for all of us and the transnational lists will serve this dream, writes Alberto Alemanno.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and – as a founder of The Good Lobby – one of the initiators of the campaign Real Representation as Europeans with WeMove.eu

Will transnational lists democratize European politics – as argued by their backers? Or rather empower the larger countries, major political parties or even populist groups – as countered by their opponents? And – should they see the light of the day – who would run, how, and who would end up being elected on those pan-EU lists?

Regardless of its outcome, today’s vote of the European Parliament – for or against transnational lists – must be rendered decipherable by first disentangling it from the ongoing, interinstitutional power play and, second, contextualising it within the broader debate about the future direction of EU democracy.

Despite voting for their representatives at the European Parliament since 1979, EU citizens do so on different dates, according to different electoral laws and support candidates selected by national – as opposed to EU – parties among their own citizens. Yet, under the Lisbon Treaty, the members of the European Parliament no longer represent ‘their’ nationals, but the ‘Union’s citizens’ and any citizen could – by virtue of the EU citizenship – run in any other country.

To move toward a more genuine EU election process, political parties should be entitled to present transnational lists. This would entail that political parties present one political manifesto and one list of candidates to all EU citizens across the territory of the whole Union so as to reflect the EU dimension. This would be in stark contrast with the current situation in which European Political Parties, being an artificial collection of national parties and their domestic bases, are only European in name. This idea has recently been revamped by Emmanuel Macron, endorsed by EU Commission President Juncker (against his own political party), and is publicly supported by Italy, Belgium and Spain. While being historically opposed to it, the UK actually gave the best occasion for this idea to come true, as it leaves 73 seats free in the European Parliament that need to be reapportioned.

The ball is in the European Parliament’s camp now, which – in the framework of the reapportionment of the UK seats – has proposed creating a pan-EU constituency for up to 46 MEPs. This would give each citizen a second vote in the election, additional to his or her traditional vote for candidates standing in national constituencies. The uncertainties surrounding Brexit (will the UK still be part of the EU by May 2019?) have been used by the European Parliament to try to put off this proposal until 2024. But today’s Parliament proposal expressly foresees that – in case the UK is still a member state of the Union at the beginning of the 2019-2014 parliamentary term -, and if there are MEPs elected on transnational lists, the latter shall take up their seats only once the UK’ withdrawal becomes effective. Although this clause raises serious doubt of constitutionality – insofar as it would enable the election of more MEPs than those foreseen by the Treaty itself -, it appears the price to be paid to create a legal basis in primary law (the 1976 Act) without changing the EU Treaties.

The ball will then go to the European Council that it is schedule to discuss it on February 23.

Why transnational lists?

According to its supporters (including myself), by breathing new life into European electoral politics, the creation of transnational lists would eventually nudge political parties to compete for ideas, votes and seats on a pan-EU scale. EU debates would not be in the hands of national, Brussels-based European politicians anymore but in all EU citizens’ ones. This would in turn energize the generally dull European Parliament electoral race and possibly stimulate a greater turn-out. By progressively setting aside the Spitzenkandidaten process – whereby EU parties select the lead candidate for the campaign -, transnational lists will pave the way to the President of the European Commission to be elected through universal suffrage. As such he (possibly a she) will no longer be the expression of a parliamentary majority and would bring it a step further the politicisation of the European public space.

Why not?

The opponents of such a reform have mounted a clear attack to transnational lists by raising the following arguments: they would detach the parliamentarians from their constituents; they would empower major countries and major political parties; they would open the door of the Parliament to more populists; and, eventually they would create first-order MEPs (those elected transnationally) as opposed to MEPs of second-order (everyone else).

When closely examined, none of these arguments seem to be well-grounded.

First, since the Lisbon Treaty, the members of the European Parliament no longer represent ‘their’ nationals, but the ‘Union’s citizens’. Moreover, the solution of pan-EU problems require a pan-EU understanding.

Second, the set-up of a pan-EU constituency would require some adjustments – as already foreseen in the French proposal pending with the Council – to avoid disparities among large and smaller countries. Yet the bottom line is that nobody should get elected from a transnational list if she will fight a exclusively national campaign.

As for political parties, it will be up to them to organize their lists so as to ensure geographic (and gender) diversity among their candidates.

Third, it appears incongruous to argue that nationalists’ parties could gain from transnational forms of engagement that appear inherently against their own nature. Yet, should it be the case, it won’t be this reform as such to generate their success.

Fourth, to overcome the suspicion of a hierarchy of MEPs, one must notice that those elected in the pan-EU constituency would enjoy the same prerogatives as all the others. Moreover, MPs elected following different methods already co-exist in different member states’ assemblies, and no one’s status has ever suffered.

The sceptics might rather feel outsmarted by elected representatives whose democratic legitimacy might appear stronger and are afraid not to be able to run on those transnational lists that will inherently favour candidates with a EU-wide appeal. Yet unfortunately this appears the most wide-spread argument currently used to justify opposition to this reform.

What would it happen in case of non-agreement?

Failing that, political parties could still consider presenting their own candidates across several EU Member States. In the absence of a dedicated pan-European constituency and a uniform electoral procedure, parties – or emerging transnational movements, such as DIEM, CIVIO, or a EU-version of République en Marche – could register their organisations and candidates in various Member States. While extremely cumbersome – as tested by previous experiences by the Radicali and Greens in the 1990s, and Newropeans in the 2000s – this will foster the emergence of transnational lists. It is only by so doing that genuinely transnational parties will be able to convey their pan-European political message and have different nationalities appear on each transnational list. As a result, a Greek could be elected in Germany (Yanis Varoufakis?), and a Polish in Hungary or viceversa.

The Zeitgeist and pan-European elections

The European-wide constituency is already up for grab. We can’t dream of a better political arena for the next political leaders to grow up with an authentically European understanding of what’s next for all of us. In less than 24 hours, more than 50,000 European have signed up a petition asking the European Parliament and the Member States gathered in the European Council to revolutionize the next European elections by creating a pan-EU constituency open to transnational candidates.