Are European elections truly European?

Nikolay Domanov

LLM, MA in International Relations, Sofia University; Post-Graduate Diploma candidate in EU Competition Law, King’s College London

One of the main criticisms against the European Union (EU) is related to its democratic legitimacy. This is the reason why the Treaty of Lisbon[i] introduced many new instruments aimed at lowering the democratic deficit in the EU, such as the ordinary legislative procedure[ii], the European citizens’ initiative[iii], the European political parties[iv], etc.

Nevertheless, the only European institution comprised of directly elected members remains the European Parliament (EP). If such a scenario is sufficient to establish a strong EU based on the principle of representative democracy is yet to be determined.

Whether the European elections are truly European is a rather difficult question the answer to which may be found by examining the voter turnout and several key aspects of EU electoral legislation.

1. Some history

European elections as they currently exist within the European Union are limited to the European Parliament elections. The construction of this democratic institute, however, evolved over a considerable amount of time.

The Treaty of Paris[v] of 18 April 1951 stipulates the establishment of the General Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community. It was to consist of 78 members and to meet in Strasbourg. The Treaty of Rome[vi] from 1958 changed these provisions and transformed the General Assembly into Assembly of the European Communities, which was to have jurisdiction with respect to all three Communities. In 1958, this assembly was unofficially named European Parliament. Such title was legally established later by the Single European Act[vii] in 1986.

Until 1979, the Assembly was formed by national parliaments, and individual members exercised dual mandate. Such formation greatly diminished the importance of the Assembly.

The first direct elections to the European Parliament were held in 1979 under the provisions of the Act concerning the election of the members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage annexed to the Council decision of 20 September 1976, as amended[viii], in particular Article 14 thereof. This was a significant development in strengthening the only institution formally representing ‘the people of the countries of the European Community’.

2. The current state of play

Under the current legislation, the elections to the EP have been left entirely to individual countries and thus to national parties. Unfortunately, the national parties tend to consider the European campaign to be of secondary importance which decreases the European awareness of the voters in general. Additionally, the popularity of the political parties at European level decreases, too. The latter, however, is about to change as the EP and the Council are currently drafting a new Regulation on the Statute of European Political Parties[ix].

The awareness of Europeans on the European policy issues, on the other hand, is surprisingly low. The commitment of the European electorate to European elections is based mainly on national election platforms, which often focus on issues that are not relevant to the greater European political environment. In addition, national parties are bold enough to openly ignore EU affairs. In this way the European elections will never be able to properly address the EU dimension of politics.

Decisive steps must be taken in order to convince the electorate of the not so obvious fact that a shift in the balance of power among MEPs will result in a change of EU policies. In other words, the voters have to apprehend that it is them who can influence the development of the EU integration process. If achieved, this scenario shall at least in theory lead to an increase of the confidence in EU affairs, and in particular in European parties and politicians. The establishment of a strong and functioning EU must not in any case rely on national politics which may be complicated, but in fact tend to be narrow and quite comfortable to some domestically oriented politicians in comparison to the constantly changing political space at the broader European level.

3. EP elections under the Treaty of Lisbon and representation of EU citizens

According to Article 14, paragraph 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) the number of MEPs shall not exceed 750, plus the President. There is a minimum threshold of 6 members per Member State and the Treaty requires that no Member State shall be allocated more than 96 seats.

Moreover, the TEU provides for a ‘degressively proportional’’ representation of citizens. This principle is an elegant federalist concept according to which the interests of the smaller states are protected by granting smaller countries relatively bigger representation. More precisely formulated, the requirement stipulates that a MEP from a large Member State on average represents more citizens than a MEP from a small Member State. The ‘weighted representation’ of the seats (i.e. the ratio of population to seats) is therefore greater in larger Member States than in smaller ones.

In the 2004 Parliament there were ten countries with too many or too few representatives. In the current Parliament, elected in June 2009, there were nine such countries. Even after the adoption of the 18 additional members of Parliament under the Lisbon Treaty, five ‘inconsistencies’ will remain.

It is important to recognise that the method currently used to allocate seats is actually a political adjustment and, as such, it is in a state of constant turmoil. The obvious major destabilizing factor is the diminishing population of Germany. In the coming decades the population differences will diminish as Germany’s population decreases and the populations of France, the UK and Italy continue to grow. If Germany remains with the maximum number of seats (96) despite its falling population, the next most populous states will have to be given a much larger number of seats than at present. Such an outcome will severely prejudice the interests of the medium sized states, thus jeopardising degressive proportionality. Obviously, this development will be detrimental to, mainly, the interests of medium-size countries.

In the light of those factors it is clear that a well functioning democratic system for allocation of seats in the European Parliament must be established.

4. The electoral right – a key aspect

The European Union has no single definition of citizenship. There is a large variety of national citizenship laws in the Member States. This inevitably reflects on the exercise of voting rights of every European.

However, over the years, significant efforts have been made to achieve a single European electoral act. Under the current rules elections in each Member State shall be held on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by a secret ballot under the rules of the proportional system. General principles valid at European level include: duration of the parliamentary term and rules governing the beginning and the end of the legislature; time of the elections; incompatibility of parliamentary mandate.

The proportional system is applied via national, regional or mixed lists. Member States have the right to determine the threshold, which may not exceed 5% of the validly cast votes in the elections. Voting in Cyprus, Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg is compulsory. It is clear that overcoming the current regional differences and reaching a common European electoral reform will be a very demanding and rather complicated endeavour. It will, no doubt, require political determination.

It is the European Parliament that has every right to seek all possible means of strengthening its authority to the public, becoming the focus of the new European political space. Unfortunately, the search for political legitimacy is undermined by continuing decline in voter turnout, by poor media coverage, by the apathy of the political parties and even by the hidden envy of some national parliaments, driven by the growing powers of the European Parliament. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that turnout in elections is falling steadily from 63.0% in 1979 to 43.1% in 2009.

5. The electoral reform

During the seventh legislature the European Parliament has twice attempted to adopt a modification of the Act concerning the election of the members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage. The liberal Andrew Duff on behalf of the Committee of Constitutional Affairs drafted two reports. Finally, they were both rejected, mainly for political reasons. The main proposals included in the first Duff Report[x] are clearly aimed at the expansion of the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament by strengthening the notion of European citizenship. The core of the proposed changes is, however, the system for seat allocation in the European Parliament.

The main idea of the compromise is to find a fair and legally indisputable method of allocating seats every five years, taking into account different factors such as migration, demographic changes and accession of new Member States. Realistically, and in accordance with its principles, it is the medium-sized states which would primarily lose mandates in the Parliament for the benefit of the larger ones, which will receive more seats. For instance, Bulgaria, Austria and Sweden will lose three seats, whereas Portugal, Czech Republic and Hungary – four. On the contrary, France would get 11 additional seats, UK – 8, Spain – 8 and Italy – 6.

The biggest challenge to be considered is the accession of new Member States. For example, if a country with a relatively small population joins the EU, it would not have such a big impact in comparison with the scenario of a larger country joining the EU. The impact will be twofold. First, the ‘price’ of a single seat will be changed, measured in a number of EU citizens and, second, since the total number of seats is fixed, the seats allocated to the new member must be taken from the current ones. Put simply: the better part of the existing members would lose seats.

In his second report[xi], Andrew Duff considerably reduced the scope of the proposals. The tactic of explicitly stating proposals was transformed into more general language. The second draft report does not mention anything about the ‘Cambridge Compromise’ or another formula for allocation of seats. But it does appeal to the Council to find a ‘common’ formula. Undoubtedly, the starting point would be precisely the formula presented in the ‘Cambridge Compromise’.

The solution – or how the parliamentary seats are allocated

The final decision to determine the number of seats allocated to each Member State shall be taken unanimously by the European Council. It shall act on a proposal adopted by the Parliament. The Lisbon Treaty provides the framework and the specific allocation should be done in accordance with a decision taken before the 2009 elections: the rule adopted in the Protocol № 36 to the Lisbon Treaty. Since the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force later than planned, the 2009 elections and the subsequent allocation of seats were carried out under the provisions of the Treaty of Nice[xii]. A total of 736 MEPs were elected. At its meeting on 18 and 19 June 2009 the European Council took a decision on constituting 18 additional seats. France, Austria and Sweden received two additional seats each. Spain got 4 extra seats and Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Great Britain and Slovenia – one each. Under this approach, until the 2014 elections the number of MEPs will be 754.

Unless it comes to a general revision of the Treaty of Lisbon, sooner or later a new system for allocation of seats in the EP shall be established and it is clear that, as analyzed above, it will be aimed against the interests of medium-sized countries.

How exactly the electoral reform is going to take place is an issue with many question marks. It is clear, however, that some reform will take place. That is why both politicians and citizens must be aware of what is about to happen. How European Europe will ultimately be is completely up to the European citizens.

[i] It was signed on 13 December 2007 and entered into force on 1 December 2009.

[ii] Article 294 TFEU.

[iii] Article 11, paragraph 4 TEU.

[iv] According to Article 10(4) of the Treaty on European Union and Article 12(2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the political will of citizens of the Union.

[v] Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (unofficially called the Treaty of Paris) was signed on 18 April 1951 and entered into force on 23 July 1952 and expired on 23 July 2002.

[vi] Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (unofficially called the Treaty of Rome) was signed on 25 March 1957 and entered into force on 1 January 1958.

[vii] It was signed on 17 February 1986 in Luxembourg and on 28 February 1986 in The Hague, and entered into force on 1 July 1987.

[viii] Council Decision 76/787/ECSC, EEC, Euratom (OJ L 278, 8.10.1976, p. 1) as amended by Council Decision 93/81/Euratom, ECSC, EEC (OJ L 33, 9.2.1993, p. 15) and by Council Decision 2002/772/EC, Euratom (OJ L 283, 21.10.2002, p. 1).

[ix] See Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Statute and funding of European political parties and European political foundations (COM(2012)0499)

[xii] It was signed on 26 February 2001 and entered into force on 1 February 2003.