MEPs face loss of legitimacy if they fail parliamentary reform

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Andrew Duff, former MEP and former president of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) [European Parliament]

Andrew Duff, former MEP and former president of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) [European Parliament]

If the European Union lacks somewhat in terms of popular legitimacy, the electoral procedure of the European Parliament must have something to do with it. Fortunately, Parliament is itself responsible for initiating electoral reform, although like all parliaments it must overcome the vested interests of serving deputies that provide an in-built bias towards the status quo, writes Andrew Duff.

Andrew Duff is a European policy expert and was a Member of the European Parliament from 1999-2014. Tomorrow (December 4), Andrew Duff will be presenting a paper in the European Parliament Committee of Constitutional Affairs Hearing on Electoral reform. For a fuller discussion of these and other issues, see his forthcoming publication (John Harper) Pandora, Penelope, Polity: How to Change the European Union.

Since the introduction of direct elections in 1979, Parliament has only managed one serious reform – the introduction of proportional representation across the Union. Parliament has two obligations to fulfil under the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon. Article 223(1) TFEU says that it shall draw up a proposal either for a uniform electoral procedure or one which meets principles common to all member states. Article 14(2) TEU says it shall propose to the European Council a draft decision on the apportionment of seats according to the (ill-defined) principle of degressive proportionality. To complicate matters, Lisbon also changed the designation of an MEP’s mandate from that of representing ‘the peoples of the states’ to ‘the Union’s citizens’ – making more absurd the monopoly held by the member states and national political parties on the selection of candidates, the conduct of the election campaign and the distribution of seats.

The Spitzenkandidat experiment in 2014 was one attempt to make the elections more transnational. Its success notwithstanding (surprising even its authors), it is agreed that further reform is needed to improve the process by which President Juncker’s successor is to be elected in 2019. The logical next step is to put the party champions at the head of transnational lists from which a certain number of MEPs will be elected for a pan-European constituency. This will galvanise the federal level parties into campaigning gear and give the electorate a welcome second ballot to use at its discretion in the European dimension of politics. Fortunately, the Constitutional Affairs Committee in the last mandate made a good stab at such a proposal.

There was also progress made in the last Parliament towards finding agreement on an arithmetical formula on seat apportionment among the states in order to put to an end the much criticised, unseemly process which has up to now seen seats bartered at the end of every IGC. The system explored, called the Cambridge Compromise (CamCom), would be equitable, explicable and durable, a two-stage variant of which would ensure that no state lost more than two seats at the next election. Amazingly, even the European Council, after struggling to find 11 seats to give Croatia, has now agreed ‘to establish a system which will in the future make it possible, before each new election to the European parliament, to allocate seats between member states in a fair, objective and transparent manner’.

If the apportionment of seats in the first chamber of the legislature is to be made more proportional, it is unavoidable that the weighting of votes in the second chamber is also reviewed. The entry into force last month of the Lisbon system for QMV – that is, 55% of states representing 65% of the population – favours both the larger states (in terms of population) and the smaller states (in terms of the number of states needed to reach a majority). It will only be fair to compensate the middling size states, which stand to lose their over-representation in the Parliament, with more clout in the Council. Happily, a scheme exists, known as the Jagellonian Compromise (JagCom), based on the square root of population which accords voting power in inverse proportion to size. A combination of transnational lists, CamCom and JagCom would provide a rational and comprehensive solution to a number of interrelated constitutional problems. Electoral turnout would be likely to improve and democratic confidence in the Union grow.

Of course, these important democratic reforms require amendment to both the primary and secondary law of the Union. The institutional treaty changes will find their place within a larger package which includes the installation of fiscal union, a new financial system and a settlement of the British problem. There will also be the chance to rectify some of the less good features of Lisbon as well as to modernise certain common policies. A Convention is certainly necessary to craft such a shift in the balance of power between the EU institutions and among the states. A European Parliament dedicated to its own reform should aim to play a leading role in this Convention, in the closest collaboration with the Commission. MEPs should act now to prepare to use to the full their powers of initiative.

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