Phantom MEPs cause political ‘nightmare’


The increase in the number of lawmakers in the European Parliament, prompted by the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, is causing major headaches across the EU, with massive uncertainty surrounding the timing of the 18 new MEPs taking office.

Once the Lisbon Treaty enters into force on 1 December, the 18 ‘observer’ or ‘phantom’ MEPs could take their seats in the European Parliament, where they will enjoy full pay without actual voting rights, following an agreement between EU leaders at a December 2008 summit in Brussels. 

However, many questions remain. The first complication concerns the timing of their arrival. In countries such as Spain and Sweden, where European elections were held under a single national list – i.e. one national constituency – the job of selecting the additional MEPs is straightforward. Indeed, Spain, which with four new MEPs is easily the biggest winner in this deal, is known to be anxious to send its new members to Brussels immediately. 

The picture is far less clear in member states where voters chose individual candidates on party lists, or where there are several regional constituencies, as is the case in France and the UK. 

In the UK, which stands to gain one additional MEP, the independent electoral commission already has a system in place to decide which region will receive the extra member. British sources confirmed to EURACTIV that the most likely outcome of the process will see an additional Conservative MEP elected from the West Midlands region. 

In France, meanwhile, the situation is a mystery. France, which currently has 72 MEPs, did not decide before the June 2009 European elections on what basis the country’s two new seats would be allocated, if and when Lisbon were approved across the EU. 

As a result, according to EURACTIV France, there is widespread confusion, with Green MEPs claiming they are entitled to the two additional seats, which would see them overtake the country’s socialist party to become France’s second-largest European delegation for the first time in history. 

But owing to France’s “legal void” on this issue, no-one knows – and nor does anyone want to know – what happens next, sources told EURACTIV France. Furthermore, France does not appear in any rush to resolve the issue – “urgency is relative,” a source from the governng centre-right said. 

All or nothing, say angry MEPs 

This might not be a problem if member states could send their ‘phantom’ MEPs at a time of their choosing. For example, Spain could deploy its four observers right away, allowing France ample time to solve its own problems. 

However, UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff told EURACTIV that the Parliament would block such a move. “They can’t all dribble in at a time of their choosing,” said an angry Duff. “They have to come in at exactly the same time, because it would upset the Parliament groups and the overall balance if they come in ad hoc.”

Duff went on to claim that the EU assembly would create new rules to ensure veto power on this issue. While he conceded that no such rule currently existed, the UK MEP said “we’re going to make a rule,” adding that he believes EU leaders will support the Parliament in this approach. 

Addressing France’s laissez-faire approach, Duff cautioned that “they’ll have to become more aware of the reality of the situation”. 

Acknowledging this “complicated matter,” Johann Schoo, director-general of the Parliament’s legal service, told EURACTIV that it was not clear to him how this situation would play out. 

“I think they should only be sent as observers once all are known,” he said, echoing Duff’s point, “but the EP has not clarified this question yet”. 

When will the ‘phantoms’ become real MEPs? 

A second and arguably greater complication concerns the timing of these MEPs’ transition from observer to full MEP status. 

Institutionally, it is not at all clear what’s going to happen, European Parliament expert David Earnshaw told EURACTIV. 

Earnshaw derided the deal made by EU leaders in December 2008 as “absolutely stupid”. The agreement (see ‘Background’) has created a quagmire whereby the 18 MEPs can only be given their full status if the EU treaties are amended, requiring ratification in all 27 member states. “It’s a political nightmare,” he said.

Johann Schoo likewise acknowledged that a timetable “is still not known,” adding that changes could be made either with a Croatian accession treaty – expected in 2011 – or an independent protocol which could be signed anytime after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. 

Schoo argued that some countries, notably Spain, might insist on having it signed and ratified as soon as possible, because they will gain four new MEPs. 

However, Andrew Duff believes this simply will not happen. “I think it’s going to take a very long time, probably between 18 months and two years, before this decision is formally approved by all 27 parliaments, which has to be done. It always takes this long – these parliaments work very slowly with anything to do with the EU,” he said. 

Schoo agreed, arguing that “it’s certainly possible that the final approval could take several years, because those member states who do not gain any MEPs still have to approve it, and their interest may not be so high”. 

Finally, David Earnshaw urged EU leaders not to forget about UK Conservative leader and prime-minister-in-waiting David Cameron, who indicated earlier this week that a Conservative government would not hesitate to play hardball with the EU (EURACTIV 05/11/09). 

This complicated issue could potentially give Cameron a strong negotiating tool, Earnshaw argued, and could lead to further institutional complications for the post-Lisbon Treaty EU.

(EURACTIV France contributed to this article.)

The Nice Treaty provides for 736 MEPs, while the Lisbon Treaty foresees a maximum of 751 MEPs (750 MEPs plus the president). 

However, as agreed at the December 2008 summit between EU heads of state and government, the number of MEPs will be increased to 754 MEPs until 2014 in order to maintain 99 MEPs for Germany. After 2014 this number will fall to 96. 

With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty now expected on 1 December 2009, 12 EU member states have to decide how to choose their 'new' Lisbon MEPs. 

  • Spain will get four additional seats; 
  • France, Sweden and Austria will each get two seats; 
  • The UK, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovenia and Malta will each receive one additional MEP.

In the 2008 summit conclusions, EU leaders envisaged that the 18 new MEPs would assume their full responsibilities "if possible during the year 2010". 

Accordingly, the European Parliament earlier this year created a so-called 'observer status' to allow these MEPs to bridge the gap between the Nice and Lisbon treaties (EURACTIV 25/05/09). 

The practice of granting observer status to MEPs is not new, and has been used in recent years when new countries joined the EU. 

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