27th Mar 2019

MEPs put off controversial electoral reform

  • The issue will be re-visited in autumn (Photo: EUobserver)

Proposals designed to shake up the European political landscape were on Thursday sent back to the drawing board after proving too controversial for MEPs to endorse.

Put together by UK liberal MEP Andrew Duff, the report sailed through committee in spring but then came a cropper as the political groups in the parliament took a more thorough look at the implications of the proposals, representing the greatest shake-up of electoral procedures since the European Parliament was first directly elected in the 1970s.

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The most controversial idea concerns electing 25 extra MEPs on a transnational ticket in a bid to create a EU-wide political space. These deputies would be chosen by European political parties and have to come from at least a third of member states. Citizens would elect them alongside their national MEPs.

The report also calls for the regular "reapportioning" of seats with the EU assembly, a single electoral roll, and one set of rules on immunities for MEPs, and for elections to be held in May instead of June.

Duff admitted that there had been "great debate" in the political groups about this ideas. MEPs feel "nervous" discussing reforms of a process that got them into parliament and "begin to consider their own pensions," he said.

With the report risking being shot down in plenary on Thursday, Duff asked for it to go back to committee in September so he can get wider political support. He aims to have it before plenary once more in October.

Chief among the criticisms are that the proposals would have to be ratified by member states, with the long and difficult birth of the current Lisbon Treaty still fresh in the mind.

Super deputies

MEPs also groused about whether these 'super deputies' would be accountable to anyone and about the timing of the report.

Countering the arguments, Duff noted that the chamber already has natural tiers among MEPs - including simply whether they are "good" or "bad" deputies - and pointed out that member states will anyway have to approve changes to the EU treaty to admit Croatia as a member in 2012.

He argued that transnational MEPs would "dramatise and personalise" European elections, where participation has fallen steadily since from 63 percent in 1979 to 43 percent in 2009.

"It is certainly possible that Mr Barroso's successor to the commission [presidency] is to be found on a transnational list," said Duff.

At the moment, although nominally European elections, the five-yearly trek to polling booths have the air of 27 different national elections.

This disconnect and the resulting low turnout has become an increasing embarrassment to the parliament, which has steadily seen its legislative powers increase.

'I am ingenious'

Continued resistance is expected from several quarters.

Member states are unlikely to be as equable about treaty change as Duff while European political groups may dislike being put on the spot in terms of finding suitable candidates and pan-European election themes.

Nationally the electoral reform proposals could ruffle feathers, too. Domestic parties are unlikely to appreciate no longer having the sole right to choose what MEPs go on lists.

But the first battle for Duff, for whom this is something of a parliamentary lifework, will be to get his ideas through committee and back onto the plenary agenda in autumn.

He is still talking up his chances.

"I think you underestimate my capacity to be ingenious in finding solutions to complex problems," he noted when asked about the difficult political waters ahead.

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