Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Centre-right torpedoes pan-EU electoral lists plan

  • MEPs voted against reserving seats that UK members will vacate for candidates on a transnational electoral list (Photo: European Parliament)

The European People's Party (EPP) torpedoed the idea of 'transnational' electoral lists for the 2019 European elections on Wednesday (7 February) - but rallied behind the notion that the lead candidate of the election winner should become president of the European Commission.

As the largest group in the European Parliament, the EPP held the decisive vote on what during the preceding debate proved to be a controversial issue – whether the seats vacated because of Brexit should one day be filled with candidates who ran across multiple EU member states.

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  • The draft text on redistributing seats after Brexit was written by Polish MEP Danuta Huebner (Photo: European Parliament)

Currently, MEPs are elected in a single EU country. The idea of pan-European lists is decades-old, but has never been adopted. Some MEPs saw Brexit as an opportunity to introduce them.

On Wednesday, MEPs voted on a legal text proposing to national governments what to do with the 73 seats which UK members will leave behind after their country leaves the EU.

The draft text took Brexit as an opportunity and proposed that some of the empty seats could be filled with MEPs who gain seats on a transnational 'list'.

Although the draft text was co-written by Polish EPP member Danuta Huebner, her fellow EPP colleague, Hungarian MEP Gyorgy Schopflin proposed to remove all references to the transnational lists.

His amendments to do so were adopted by a majority of MEPs.

At the debate on Wednesday morning, Schopflin - who wrote for EUobserver on the topic this week - called the idea of transnational lists a "top-down elite-driven project".

"Have European citizens ever been asked if they want to be represented by a transnational list?", he said.

Several EPP members spoke on Wednesday morning to denounce the idea of transnational lists, and they were supported by members from more eurosceptic groups.

Portuguese EPP member Paulo Rangel called the concept a "constitutional Frankenstein".

One member whose seat will be vacant soon, Ukip MEP Bill Etheridge, said he had trouble enough to be seen in his constituency, the West Midlands.

"You really think that you can represent people from different countries?" he asked.

Irish EPP member Mairead McGuinness, however, said she liked the idea of transnational lists.

She responded to Etheridge by saying that MEPs can and already have defended the rights of citizens in other countries, as they did in the case of the prospect of a hard post-Brexit border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

European demos

Belgian Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt passionately defended the idea of transnational lists, and said he would like citizens to be able to cast two votes: one for a national candidate, and one for a European candidate.

"It is the only way to create a European demos," he said, referring to the ancient Greek concept of the people.

"You need to to create a European demos. It cannot arrive by accident spontaneously," said the former Belgian prime minister.

Verhofstadt is a strong advocate of transnational lists. His fellow MEP from the EPP group, Manfred Weber, sitting on his right, is not (Photo: European Parliament)

Verhofstadt noted if a federal nation like the United States had a single constituency, it would not be Donald Trump, but Hillary Clinton who had become president, since the latter had more votes.

But EPP member Rangel took that as an argument against transnational lists.

"If we are not a federation, why should we have a joint constituency that not even federations have? Do we really need to build a democracy in the European Union to have a top down elite selected and coopted by European parties?"

Spitzenkandidat

As fiercely as the EPP criticised the idea of transnational lists, so passionately they defended the so-called 'Spitzenkandidat' (top candidate) process.

Although the EPP lost seats in the 2014 European parliament elections, they still emerged as the largest group. As a consequence, a majority in the parliament rallied behind the EPP's 'lead candidate' – Spitzenkandidat in German – Jean-Claude Juncker as man to lead the European Commission.

It was something of an institutional coup, as the top job of the EU's executive was previously always selected by the government leaders of the bloc's largest member states.

The government leaders are still in charge of proposing a candidate for commission president, but on Wednesday, the parliament adopted a text which said that the parliament would veto any candidate that had not been a Spitzenkandidat.

"You can't be a friend of Europe and then be against European democracy," said Spanish MEP Esteban Gonzalez Pons (EPP), defending the Spitzenkandidat system.

He referred to comments made by Juncker a day earlier, who had said that there was a "big danger" that the lead candidate process would not be respected by government leaders.

Other EPP members also argued that having a lead candidate campaign on the basis of a programme, was nothing out of the ordinary when comparing it with local, regional and national elections.

"Sorry dear friends, I am fed up to ask simply the same procedure which is accepted on all the other levels that this is also allowed in at European level," said Manfred Weber, group leader of the EPP.

Elected, not selected

He noted that Juncker's successor had to be "elected, not selected behind closed doors".

Some MEPs challenged the notion that the groups' way of choosing their lead candidate was remote from citizens as well.

In 2014, Juncker was chosen as the candidate for the EPP by a vote in the party's congress, which consists of delegates from parties that are a member of the EPP, and other affiliated groups.

Juncker was chosen by receiving 382 votes – the rest, 245, went to his competitor, Michel Barnier, who now leads the Brexit negotiations with the UK.

When this website asked citizens across Europe ahead of the 2014 elections if they knew the lead candidates, few did.

Wednesday's debate by no means seals the deal on what will happen.

Later this month, EU leaders will meet in Brussels to discuss the 2019 European parliament elections, and all of the above topics.

The commission itself will also produce a report before that.

The vote on Wednesday was not about creating a legal basis for the transnational lists, which could still happen if EU member states decided to do so.

Wednesday's vote confirmed a political deal made in advance, which would redistribute 27 of the 73 UK seats among fourteen EU member states which have said they were under-represented in the EU parliament.

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