Tomorrow – Wednesday 7th February – the plenary of the European Parliament votes on a proposal from the Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) committee about the rules for the 2019 European Parliament elections, now just 16 months away in May 2019.
What makes this matter controversial this time is the issue of what to do with the 73 seats in the EP left vacant due to Brexit (Brexit is supposed to have happened two months before the elections). The proposal is to redistribute 27 of the 73 UK seats to the rest of the EU-27, evening out some discrepancies in the numbers of MEPs per country and bringing the size of the European Parliament to 705 members (down from 751) – it is all explained here.
The more controversial issue in the proposal is to agree to the principle of so-called “Transnational Lists”, a kind of cross-border constituency of MEPs. The AFCO proposal – full text here – states (my emphasis):
Following the entry into force of the appropriate legal basis for transnational lists, a joint constituency comprising the entire territory of the Union shall be established. The terms of such joint constituency shall be stipulated in the Council Decision adopting the provisions amending the Act concerning the election of the members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage.
However, in case the United Kingdom is still a Member State of the Union at the beginning of the 2019-2024 parliamentary term, and if there are representatives in the European Parliament elected on transnational lists, they shall only take up their seats once the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union becomes legally effective.
The number of representatives elected in the joint constituency shall be defined on the basis of the number of Member States.
There are two important points here. First whatever is voted tomorrow will not make transnational lists happen. The line on “appropriate legal basis” is a reference to Article 223 TFEU about a transnational electoral law. So an agreement tomorrow in the EP is just the start of a process to actually work out how such a transnational list would work, and that needs national ratification. Second, the final line would seem to indicate that the size of such a transnational list would initially be restricted to 27 members. In addition to the 705 MEPs elected the normal way. So less than 4% of the total. As it stands this is all relatively minor.
Ultimately what is the issue here?
The European Parliament is a democratically elected institution – there are elections every five years – but those elections operate as largely separate elections in 28 (to be 27) Member States. A CDU politician in Hessen runs under a CDU banner, a Fidesz one in Budapest under a Fidesz banner, even though both those parties are part of the European People’s Party. Same among social democrats, liberals and greens – when it comes to EP elections, national topics and national parties dominate. Only then when the MEPs end up in Brussels do they then behave in a more Europeanised manner – data from VoteWatchEurope shows that party affiliation (and not nationality) determines how votes turn out in the EP in more than 4/5 of cases.
But why do you need to make these lists to make EP elections more European? Isn’t there another way?
One might indeed hope so, but the experience to date would seem to indicate progress is at a glacial pace.
Trying to Europeanise political parties from below – through the members, and then choosing EP candidates to reflect the Europeanness of a society – has not worked yet. I’ve spent all of my adult life in political parties – in Labour in the UK and in the Grüne in Germany for the past 4 years, and party politics is the most national of national environment you can imagine. All of the rest of our lives have become more European over the past few decades – we can live where we like thanks to freedom of movement, can cross borders without showing a passport thanks to Schengen, can order goods where we like – but parties remain stuck in their national systems.
It took me more than a year as a member of the Grüne before I met the next non-German citizen. When I tell people I am a Brit who is a member I am told “Oh! Dürfen nicht-Deutsche überhaupt Mitglieder werden?” (Are non-Germans even allowed to be members?) Well, yes, of course! But non-Germans do not join – see this 2013 study on the lack of diversity in German political parties – and this applies across the board. 94 of Germany’s 96 MEPs were born in Germany and the two that weren’t are Evelyne Gebhardt (born in France, moved to Germany in 1975) and Sven Giegold (born in Las Palmas but not of non-German descent and brought up in Hannover). This does not reflect modern Germany where 4.1 million non-German EU citizens live.
So if the parties are not doing it from below, then why not experiment with a change to the rules about how the European Parliament is elected in order to begin the process of Europeanising the European Parliament elections? I’d ultimately like to see far more than 4% of the EP elected on a transnational list, but things have to start somewhere, and tomorrow’s vote in the European Parliament could be that start. Make transnational lists and hence force the parties to work together, to campaign together, and put EU-wide issues genuinely on the agenda at the European Parliament elections!