Making European elections truly European

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

Citizens await the results during the EU elections outside the European Parliament building, in Brussels on 26 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

Instead of transnational lists leaving our European election in the hands of national parties, we must reform European parties, place them at the heart of European elections, and rewrite our electoral law to bring MEPs closer to citizens, writes Louis Drounau.

Louis Drounau is the founder of European Democracy Consulting. He also heads the non-profit EuropeanConstitution.eu.

On 24 September, the European Parliament’s committee for constitutional affairs held a hearing on transnational lists and the Spitzenkandidaten system. Both had been hinted at by Ursula von der Leyen in her initial address to Parliament in 2019 as topics for discussion by the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Ahead of this hearing, Alberto Alemanno, Giorgio Clarotti, Olivier Costa and Christophe Leclercq argued, in a column published by EURACTIV, that transnational lists “would make it possible to run truly European campaigns”.

Many others, from Emmanuel Macron to the Union of European Federalists, have similarly supported transnational lists as the way to make our elections more European.

Unfortunately, and while transnational lists would not make elections less European, they would not remedy their core deficiency: that national parties control electoral programmes. They are, therefore, not the reform we need to make this election truly European, engage citizens, and bring MEPs closer to their concerns.

An incorrect argument leading to the wrong conclusion

The column proposes for citizens “to vote twice: for a candidate at the national or regional level and also for a genuine European candidate at Union level” (“candidate” actually meaning “list”), arguing that “this double voting system, similar to what happens in German national elections, would make it possible to run truly European campaigns.”

With this assertion, it misses a double and crucial difference between European and German parliamentary elections. Firstly, while Germany does use a two-vote system, it does not have Germany-wide lists. Instead, citizens cast their first vote for candidates on local electoral districts, and their second vote for regional (Land-based) party lists.

By definition, an EU-wide constituency would push candidates away from citizens, since the electorate is not one Member State but the entire EU. This has a limited impact for 25 MEPs, as proposed by Andrew Duff in 2011, but would be dramatic for 50% of MEPs, as some have suggested.

Citizens cannot be expected to know even the several dozen eligible candidates for several competing lists.

But if transnational lists are kept short, most MEPs remain elected at the national level, leaving the crux of the campaign firmly as it is: led by national parties and national leaders, with national programmes and national debates.

Indeed, despite their membership in European parties, national parties routinely disregard European parties’ electoral manifestos and campaign props: they draft and advertise their own national programme, which national media focus on. As a result, national parties remain wholly unaccountable for the campaigns of their sister-parties in other countries.

Optimists say transnational lists will change this but, in 2014 and 2019, the Spitzenkandidaten – themselves shared candidates for national parties of the same European party – have done nothing to hold national parties accountable across borders. Who even remembers debates between Spitzenkandidaten?

This is because, beyond the Spitzenkandidaten, the entire electoral structure remained national. Therefore, no one really cared to look beyond national campaigns. 

Therein lies the second difference with Germany: regardless of the Land (except the particular case of the CSU), elections are “German” because they are run by country-wide parties with a single programme and identity.

Likewise, in order to challenge national parties’ monopoly on campaigns, we must place European parties at the heart of European elections: EU manifestos must be the reference, and their name and logo must be the only ones used on electoral propaganda and ballots.

Only thus, and not with a few common seats, will we ensure that citizens across borders knowingly vote for the same parties and programmes.

Thoroughly reforming European parties

The column adds that “the elections will be open to fully-fledged European parties, such as Volt”, referring to the federalist party active across Europe which ran in eight countries in 2019 with a single programme.

And yet, while Volt can be considered the closest example of a true European party, it still isn’t registered as one, depriving it of EU funding, owing to registration criteria that were instead written for national parties to creation loose alliances.

Making our election European therefore requires an extensive reform of European parties, setting them as associations of citizens and allowing them to cross-finance with national chapters.

But if European parties are finally able to lead campaign across Europe and if citizens vote for their project with their name on the ballot, do we even need transnational lists?

In federal systems, legislative elections are run by nation-wide parties (“EU-wide” for us), but never on nation-wide lists. Former MEP and UEF President Elmar Brok went as far as calling transnational lists “a sin against federalism”. There may be country-wide elections, but for the executive branch, not the legislature.

What about the Spitzenkandidaten?

Isn’t it a problem that the Spitzenkandidaten cannot be on a common list for all EU citizens to vote for? Of course not, just like German chancellor candidates do not lead Germany-wide lists, but Germany-wide parties. If citizens are given a second, proportional vote for a European party, then they can directly support this party’s Spitzenkandidat.

More important is that the choice of EU party leadership – currently done by national party leaders behind closed doors – be carried out democratically by individual members of European parties and of their national chapters. Volt does just that.

Overall, transnational lists, despite their appeal, only entrench the nation-based nature of European elections: they keep elections squarely in the hands of national parties and, if anything, move MEPs even further away from citizens.

This is probably why national parties easily support them: they seem like a good European idea and do not involve any transfer of power away from national parties.

We now stand four years before the next EU election: there is ample time to reform European parties and the EU Electoral Act, but we must act now. Instead of a mere band-aid, let us engage on a bold reform – with local electoral districts and proportional vote on European party member state lists – and make this election truly European.

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