Boosting EU’s democratic legitimacy: Parliament seeks electoral reforms

Pro-European protest in from of the European Parliament in Brussels on election night 26 May, 2019. [EURACTIV/AB]

This article is part of our special report Conference on the Future of Europe: EU overhaul in the making?.

EU lawmakers have called for reforms, including lowering the voting age, transnational lists, and gender balance rules, ahead of the next European elections in 2024.

Electoral reform, MEPs stated in a resolution adopted this week by 468 votes to 194, would be one of the “lessons to be learned” from the 2019 European elections and should be on the agenda of the planned Conference on the Future of Europe.

According to them, “zipped” lists or similar initiatives could help achieve more gender balance in the chamber.

Moreover, the resolution pointed to the fact that minorities and more than 800,000 citizens with disabilities were effectively excluded from the 2019 polls due to a lack of accessible voting centres or other bureaucratic barrier. 

Homeless people and prisoners in countries that allow them the vote also faced “obstacles” in exercising their right to vote.

Lowering the minimum voting age to 16, changes to campaigning and funding rules, and the establishment of a European Electoral Authority were among the recommendations.

MEPs also say other initiatives, such as transnational lists, would increase the “visibility” of European political parties and movements.

The so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, whereby the lead candidate of the group that wins the election would become the frontrunner for the European Commission presidency, was killed off last year over compromises struck between member states.

“Parliament’s strong suggestions in this resolution, like the call for the gender balance rules that we are still lacking, and for transnational lists to transform the European elections into a single European election, need to be taken into serious consideration by the member states,” said French rapporteur Pascal Durand (Renew Europe).

“We expect that they will be focal points for the Conference on the Future of Europe too. It is high time that we tackle existing challenges and prepare for future ones by abandoning outdated attitudes and embracing the European dimension of our politics,” Durand added.

A 2018 electoral law reform, which aimed to further Europeanise the bloc’s electoral processes, has so far failed to be ratified by all member states.

Conference content is king

According to a recent report, European elections have to become more meaningful, with a bottom-up approach to civil society and citizens’ involvement.

Among their recommendations, the authors cite EU-wide transnational lists, a reduction of the number of Commissioners, the right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament, and an end to unanimity in decision-making.

Also, citizens should have more influence on EU economic policy, according to Renate Tenbusch, director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung office in Brussels.

“Citizens need to have a say between elections and for that, we must overhaul the institutional architecture of the EU and give more power to citizens, but also to the European Parliament as the only directly elected EU institution,” she said.

What citizens might want (or not)

Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica has not ruled out that the Conference on the Future of Europe might initiate changes to the EU treaties. However, there is little appetite in member states and among citizens for such a far-reaching step.

“I am not against treaty change, but I don’t think citizens are actually asking for treaty change,” Roger Casale, secretary-general of New Europeans and acting president of Europe’s People’s Forum, told EURACTIV., explaining that changes could be achieved without changing EU treaties.

“The conference needs to respond to what citizens care about and right now, what they care about most of all, is health, and the environment, and jobs, and in other words in creating a green, healthy, dynamic future for all of Europe,” he said.

However, according to Casale, the delay has done no favours to the EU’s image.

“It is supposed to be a bottom-up process, but we’ve spent over a year fighting at the top about who is going to chair it and steer it and I think that sends a very negative message to citizens,” he said.

Asked what would happen if citizens in the consultation process decided they want less Europe, Casale said “there’s always that danger from populists”, but the consultation should not hesitate to “reach out to all of the parts of Europe… have conversations with the groups of people and with organisations that perhaps are not the actual EU fan club”.

“We need to listen to what people have to say and to give people a voice and above all listen and act on what they have to say,” he concluded.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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