3rd Dec 2023

Parliament elections unlikely to include EU-wide MEP candidates

  • EU affairs ministers had their first debate on possible new rules ahead of the 2024 European parliamentary elections (Photo: European Parliament)
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There are several ever-green debates in Brussels. One of them is the struggle to create a European political arena, and increase voters' excitement for the European Parliament elections.

The 2014 European elections saw the lowest-ever turnout at 42.6 percent, with a slight increase in 2019 to 50.66 percent.

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Some see creating joint election rules as a logical next step in the journey of European integration, others see it as another tool for the insatiable European Parliament to assert itself among EU institutions.

EU affairs ministers on Tuesday (19 October) shared their thoughts on the parliament's proposals from earlier this year on creating the seeds for a European electorate.

The parliament's ideas — which have to be approved unanimously by EU governments to come into force — include allowing voting for citizens living in non-EU countries, and ensuring gender equality by quotas.

The EP also wants to lower the voting age to 16, lowering the age threshold for candidates to 18, have Europeans vote on 9 May — which is Europe Day, marking the end of the second world war on the continent — and introduce mail-in voting.

Most controversially, it wants to create an EU-wide constituency, in which 28 MEPs would be elected through a transnational electoral list in the 2024 European elections. In this constituency, a common electoral system would apply.

The lists would be put together by parties in a way that candidates from small and medium EU countries would also appear in electable places on the lists.

The plans would also formalise the lead candidate (or spitzenkandidat) system, in which the main candidate of the winning party would assume the presidency of the European Commission.

In 2019, EU leaders decided to choose Ursula von der Leyen, who did not run in the EU elections, instead of Manfred Weber, who was the lead candidate of the centre-right European People's Party, which won the most seats in the European Parliament.

'Too far'

Cyprus's foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulidis said "the idea is not bad", summing up most countries' position in support of the goal of having higher turnout at the EP elections.

He's also part of the "Sunday voting club" as the ministers called themselves after a while: countries where voting on any other day is "unthinkable".

"Some elements go much too far in our view," Jeppe Kofod, Danish foreign minister, said, voicing another dominant argument among governments.

"Denmark believes that translational lists contradict the basic approach that it is national candidates rooted in national political parties who represent their country in the European Parliament," he said.

Kofod said the spitzenkandidaten process "may question the commission's political independence and credibility as an institution".

Portugal's state secretary for European affairs, Tiago Antunes, argued that the EP's proposal is "not in line with treaties".

"I don't think citizens will be feel better represented by people they don't know, and don't speak their language," he said arguing against the transnational lists.

"This measure does not increase democracy," he added, saying: "a translational MEP is not more democratic, it could lead to more distance between the elected, and the electors,"

The two largest countries, however, are in favour of the political experiment.

Laurence Boone, France's state minister for Europe, argued that having translational list would "increase the feeling of belonging", and would allow for a better tunrout.

Anna Lührmann, Germany's state minister for Europe, said that transnational lists "can be a useful contribution of creating a sense of European public identity".

"Such a reform could increase trust in the electoral system and a European identity," she said, pointing out that "we are talking about 5 percent of the seats".

The idea of the lists has been lingering around for years with strong support from French president Emmanuel Macron before the 2019 elections, but then eventually voted down by MEPs themselves. The new government in Berlin has pledged its support for the idea.

On Tuesday, the most combattant opponent to the plans was Hungary's justice minister, Judit Varga, who for almost a decade served at the side of various Hungarian MEPs. She argued that there are "no serious deficiencies that would require major changes".

Varga simply called the proposals a "blatant attempt of a power grab".

'Political will'

Spanish Socialist MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa, who was in charge of the file at the European Parliament, told EUobserver it was "very positive" that ministers discussed the issue already. He was also invited to deliver a presentation to council members.

"Reforms can be implemented if there is political will and we focus on the core issues: joint constituency and gender provisions," he said.

Domènec Ruiz Devesa argued that legal concerns had been cleared by the council's own legal service which declared transnational lists to be in line with EU treaties.

He said some governments' argument that the joint lists would endanger proportional representation for smaller and mid-size countries "does not hold water".

"28 MEPs out of 733 is a very small percentage," he said.

The Czech presidency is now expected to take the diverging views and mold them into a possible compromise. It is doubtful though that new rules would be agreed before the 2024 elections.

There had already been some reforms agreed in 2018 on displaying the logo of European political parties, voting in third countries, introduction of electoral thresholds — however, since not all member states approved them, they are still not in force.

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