Catch-up democracy: The case for electoral reform of the European Parliament

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

In June the European Parliament is to vote on a major package of proposals to reform its composition and electoral procedure. Here the Parliament’s rapporteur, UK Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff (ALDE) argues the case for change. 

The following commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Andrew Duff MEP (ALDE; UK), rapporteur for the European Parliament on electoral reform and president of the Union of European Federalists (UEF). 

"European unity is at risk. While the Lisbon Treaty greatly increased the competences of the European Union and the powers of its institutions, especially those of the Parliament, nothing much has been done to improve its popular legitimacy.

Turnout in European parliamentary elections continues to decline, from 63% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. Solidarity has been in short supply. Protectionism is too often the first reaction to crises of the euro zone, and to Arab refugees. Taking its lead from fractious governments, popular opinion is all too susceptible to militant nationalism.

When times get tough, the relative democratic weakness of Europe's system of governance is exposed. The European Union is run by elites. Most people freely admit to knowing next to nothing about it. The popular media remains narrowly national.

In tackling EU affairs, national parliaments are frustrated by ignorance tinged with jealousy. They and their political parties have stopped acting as a reliable conduit between public opinion and Europe, resulting in a serious dislocation between the EU's governments and electorates.

At the very time when the EU has become more powerful and more necessary than ever, so it disappears from the daily political lives of most of its citizens.

Limping democracy

The European Union is a unique experiment in building a post-national democracy. There has never been another democratic federal union of international states and citizens. The EU continues to evolve, not least in the field of fundamental rights, yet its political development is lopsided: the democratic leg limps.

It is essential that the reach of Europe's parliamentary democracy should match the scope of its government, which has surely transcended the nation state, of its economy, which is well integrated across national boundaries, and of its courts, which have long since recognised the primacy of EU law.

Unless politics catches up with the European reality, democracy is in peril. Urgent action at EU level is needed to repair a generalised absence of trust between the people and government. As the scale of European integration is now extending into new areas, such as fiscal policy and internal and external security, it is vital that the European citizen is able to locate who does what and why at the federal level.

Voters are often wiser than those who serve them. No intelligent European elector can believe the pretensions of national politicians, who claim to be able to tackle on their own the global challenges of finance, poverty, security or climate. European integration is the common-sense regional reaction to globalisation.

The EU brings values, structure and direction to European integration. Yet the EU is necessarily complex and, because of its size, distant: it is not a simple extrapolation of its member states. Familiar ways and means of doing things within states do not simply transcribe themselves onto the larger trans-national canvas.

New agencies and methods need to be found to ensure that Europe's federal experiment remains profoundly democratic and that those who govern the EU have, in equal measure, the capability to lead and the capacity to be held to account.

Rescuing the political party

Oiling the wheels of democracy is what electoral procedures and political parties are for. At present, both are failing in the EU. The electoral system results in 27 disjointed national election campaigns and renders MEPs distant figures.

Europe's political party system is failing to sustain the project of European unification in a democratic and efficient way. Even if they were willing to concentrate on EU affairs (which they are not), national parliaments, either singly or collectively, are incapable of exercising proper democratic control at the European level.

Europe's single political market needs strong political parties that can work effectively across the internal frontiers of the Union. In politics as in economics, the EU needs now to take action to correct market failure.

Political parties are an essential sinew of democracy, and at the European level that sinew is missing. Genuine European political parties are needed if the anxieties and aspirations of the people are to be well articulated and moderated at the federal level, and if the lively party politics within the European Parliament are to find a larger resonance in the public arena.

To be sure, the European political families have already created formal party organisations which broadly mirror the political groups inside the European Parliament: Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberals, Greens, Right and Left.

But these parties are pale forerunners of what they need to become. A major objective of the European Parliament's current package of proposals, therefore, is to galvanise the rapid development of truly European political parties.

The key reform is to introduce a pan-EU constituency in which 25 additional MEPs will be elected. The job of finding and selecting 25 candidates and ordering them on gender-balanced, trans-national lists will fall to these nascent European political parties. At least nine nationalities must be represented on each list. Each voter will have two votes: one for the current national or regional list, the other for the pan-EU constituency.

Campaigns transformed

The changes, if adopted, will transform the next European election campaign. The European dimension will become much more prominent as political parties address topical issues of EU politics and offer the electorate realistic choices about the shape and direction of EU government.

The public will get a more accurate view of how the Parliament works and what it does. Even the media may get engaged in reporting the story that political parties and personalities across Europe are competing with each other for ideas, votes and seats. Some of the champions on the trans-national lists will become well known across national borders. And from those lists might well emerge Mr Barroso's successor as president of the European Commission.

The Duff Report includes at least three other important matters. It seeks to update the EU's system of parliamentary privileges and immunities to better reflect the supranational reality.

It also triggers the negotiations with the Council which are necessary in order to re-distribute the existing 751 seats in the Parliament before 2014 to take account of migratory and demographic changes as well as the need to respect the treaty-based principle of regressive proportionality.

Lastly, it calls on the European Commission to initiate new legislation to make it easier for citizens living in an EU state other than their own to participate in European elections.

Taking the initiative

The Duff Report is the first use by MEPs of their new powers under Lisbon to initiate a revision of the treaties. The package will be sent by Parliament to the European Council, which will have to decide, by simple majority, whether to open an intergovernmental conference to install trans-national lists.

All the proposals, including the extra 25 MEPs (Article 14(2) Treaty on European Union), the revision of the 1965 Protocol on Privileges and Immunities and other changes to primary law (the 1976 Electoral Act), as well as the decision on the apportionment of seats, will require a consensus to be reached among governments and the final agreement of the European Parliament, followed by ratification in each national parliament.

There will be resistance, especially from Eurosceptic national leaders. But it ill-behoves those leaders, be they ever so powerful, to blame the EU for not working well (and holding the Parliament in particular contempt) while, at the same time, refusing to do anything to rectify the problems. Few heads of government can relish the prospect of a constitutional clash with the European Parliament.

Electoral reform is timely, cost-efficient and necessary. Those who care for the future of Europe should support it."

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