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Home » Elections and Governance, electoral

Repackaging Europe’s Parliament

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 16:23

By Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England and spokesman on constitutional affairs for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Much time has been spent over the last number of years in boosting the competences of the European Union and the powers of its institutions. Much less effort has been put into developing the popular legitimacy of the European Parliament. Indeed, in Britain most of the media and much of the political class remain largely ignorant about and hostile to the work of MEPs. European elections remain rigidly national in tone and content. The politics of the European Parliament, which are lively and serious, are not reflected in the electoral campaign. Citizens remain deprived of real choice between candidates and parties about serious issues where the role of the European Parliament is decisive: EU enlargement, reform of EU finances, economic governance, the election of the new European Commission and its political programme. Even the routine legislative work of MEPs, now ranging across the spectrum from single market to asylum policy, scarcely gets a look in at election time.


In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that turnout for the European elections continues to decline. The public are wise enough to have pricked the pretensions of national political parties in European affairs, but are dissatisfied by what they see coming from Brussels. The European-level parties that do exist are little more than glorified conference organisers: it has not been possible for them to break free from the grip of the national political parties which make up their membership. The concept of direct membership of individual citizens in EU parties is as yet little more than a federalist dream.
So what can be done? The European Parliament is considering a large reform package. Some elements of the proposed changes relate solely to the composition of the present House. For example, we are in search of a mathematical formula to redistribute the 751 seats prescribed by the Lisbon treaty according to the principle of degressive proportionality. Other measures relate to the minimum age of electoral participation or to how to encourage EU citizens who live in EU states other than their own to engage in the elections. But the key proposal, and the one which causes most controversy, is to add an extra 25 MEPs at the next elections in 2014 to be elected from transnational lists for a single EU-wide constituency. The gender-balanced lists would have to be composed of candidates drawn from at least a third of EU states, and voting would be by the preferential semi-open system. Each voter entering the polling station would be given two ballot papers, one for his or her national or regional constituency, the other for the European constituency.
The effect of such a change will be dramatic. The European political parties will be responsible for finding and ordering the candidates on their lists. They will then have to campaign for votes and seats against each other. The European parties will be empowered to fish for support in countries where they have at the moment no national counterpart  such as the Liberals in Greece or the European People’s Party in the United Kingdom.
The media would have something chunky to report. And from those transnational MEPs might well emerge Mr Barroso’s successor as President of the European Commission. The elections would be at once Europeanised, personalised and politicised.
In all these matters the right of initiative falls not to the Commission but to the European Parliament itself. Some of the changes, including the transnational innovation, will require a treaty change. Everyone is watching to see which way the British coalition government will jump. Could it be that Mr Cameron would really dare to risk a referendum on enhancing the legitimacy of the European Parliament? We will know the answer soon.