Duff: Next EU election campaign should be ‘enjoyable’

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Reform of the EU electoral system to be voted on tomorrow (7 July) in the European Parliament should make sure that voters across the Union and the media actually "enjoy" European election campaigns, UK Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff told EURACTIV Germany in an exclusive interview.

Andrew Duff MEP (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) is a former vice-president of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and a prominent federalist.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany's Michael Kaczmarek.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You have proposed to reform the electoral system of the European Parliament. What was your initial motivation to develop this reform?

The turnout in the elections to the European Parliament has declined ever since the first election in 1979. We have to address the declining popularity of the Parliament.

Secondly, the Treaty of Lisbon has greatly increased the powers of the Parliament, but we did not do enough to strengthen its legitimacy.

National parliaments and notably Germany's Federal Supreme Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) criticised the failure to be entirely legitimate. Some of that criticism is just wrong, including the reasoning of the Bundesverfassungsgericht. Nevertheless, we are in breach of the treaty because we do not respect the principle of degressive proportionality in the composition of the Parliament.

Thirdly, we have to deal with the issue of political parties. We have European political parties, but they are not functioning like campaigning political parties. They organise good conferences and congresses, but they do not compete in terms of ideology of policy, of votes, of seats in the election campaign for the Parliament. There is a missing link between the people and the Parliament. European political parties should do something to narrow this gap.

One of your reform proposals is to enlarge the European Parliament by 25 seats. These 25 additional MEPs would be elected from a transnational list. What is the aim of this proposal?

The aim is to Europeanise and personalise the elections. The reform would give the campaign a genuinely European dimension instead of 27 separate national campaigns. Candidates for these 25 seats would be selected by the European political parties and they would campaign across national frontiers.

This would galvanise the political parties, the media and the electorate to enjoy the campaign. National political parties so far are failing to address the European dimension of politics and economics in a coherent and intelligent way.

We need a pan-European, post-national concept and I hope that German political parties who have long preached the virtues of European integration will take responsibility on themselves to take this step forward to strengthen parliamentary democracy at this level.

There are other proposals to personalise the European Union. Some suggest direct elections of the European Commission president or the Council president. Do you support these proposals?

All those proposals are simplistic. If we don't accept the electoral reform of the European Parliament, it is certainly far too early to impose a direct presidential regime on the EU. These proposals come from people who haven't thought about it very much, like Mr. [Tony] Blair for example.

The additional 25 seats are a core element of your reform proposal. It is also one of the most criticised aspects of the reform. The vote has been postponed several times, since there is no consensus within the Parliament. Do you think that on Thursday the majority of the plenary will be behind your proposals?

Yes, I do. The political groups had some extra time to discuss this proposal in detail. There had been an alternative proposal that the 25 pan-European MEPs should be nominated inside the present 751 MEPs. This might look superficially attractive but there is no chance that the political groups and their national delegations will ever agree on who to nominate.

I also believe that we should grow the size of this House since the workload increased with the Treaty of Lisbon. We need top-calibre politicians, who will be found on the pan-European list. We need more members and we need more good members.

The number of MEPs already increased with the treaty change…

Yes, but only from 736 to 751 MEPs. There is no need to be defensive, since the budgetary impact is marginal. There are other ways to save money, including of course scrapping Strasbourg…

… which has no chance of being adopted, since it must be approved unanimously in the Council.

Indeed.

You mentioned the Lisbon ruling by Germany's Federal Supreme Court. Could you specify why you criticise the Court's ruling?

The good point is that the Court approved the Lisbon Treaty. Nevertheless, the Bundesverfassungsgericht has failed to grasp that the European Union is a compromise between the international law principle of equality between states and the democratic principle of one man, one vote. Constitutions are the instruments of law and politics; we ought not to worship them. This was a mistake and there were several other things which the judges got wrong.

It has also failed to see that the proportional representation is not limited to the European Parliament. The weight of member states' representation in the Parliament might look odd, if you have a completely isolated look at the Parliament. If you take the entire picture, then it makes more sense since member states are also represented in the Commission and in the Council.

You also propose to redistribute Parliament seats among member states. Consequently the weight of vote of the German electorate would decrease even more compared to its European neighbours. Why are you pushing for more disproportionality?

The Lisbon Treaty asks us to apply the federalist principle of degression. This means that – like in any federal structure – smaller countries are preferred in order to protect the interest of minorities. We should agree on a more technical, objective or mathematical manner to respect this federalist principle of degression. Currently we apply a political, fairly sordid political compromise. We could not agree on a new mathematical formula, yet.

The package that we will agree on in July is essentially a negotiating brief to discuss all these issues and others with the Council to see if we can get a comprehensive agreement on the whole package.

In your judgement, the smaller countries should be preferred and the weight of German votes should decline even more.

It is not my judgement; it is what the treaty says. I agree with the treaty and it obliges us to approach it in this way. Germany will remain with 96 MEPs from the 751 until its population declines closer to that of France and the UK, which are catching up because both – France and Britain – are growing and Germany's population is declining fast. It is also probable that from the 25 transnational MEPs, several Germans might be elected.

Even if you get the majority of the plenary to back your proposal, the member states might block it since it would require treaty change. Is it realistic that this reform could be in place before the 2014 election?

It's got a chance of a success, yes. The Polish Presidency will have to pick up this dossier and prepare the Council to open up negotiations. We will see how fast we can make progress. It will be very difficult for prime ministers such as Mr. Cameron to object a reform of the Parliament since they claim to [want to] improve it.

They might have other ideas on how to improve the Parliament's democratic legitimacy.

Well, so it will be nice if they put them on the table.

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