European electoral reform: A pan-European constituency

Reforms to the European electoral laws to make constituencies pan-European could increase legitimacy and bring Europe closer to its citizens, believes Domènec Ruiz Devesa

By Domènec Ruiz Devesa

Domènec Ruiz Devesa (ES, S&D) is Parliament’s rapporteur on the Modifying the Act concerning the election of MEPs report

08 Nov 2021

The European Parliament has already started on proposing reforms to European electoral law. Ideally, these will enter into force ahead of the European elections in 2024, a legislative initiative for which I have the honour of being the rapporteur.

There are many reasons behind these reforms, following those undertaken in 2015 and that have not entered into force to date. First, a uniform electoral procedure for the European Parliament elections was not established, which should be possible according to the Treaty.

This generates a series of important inconsistencies; for example, when tabling candidacies, on periods for campaigning, voting days, methods for allocating seats, age to exercise active and passive suffrage, among others. It should also be a goal of this reform to eliminate the barriers that hinder the rights to vote of persons with disabilities, members of minorities or as a result of residence in a different country. 

“With all these elements, the elections to the European Parliament in 2024 may constitute a new milestone in the federalisation of the Union political system”

Arguably. the purely political dimension of the elections is more important than the legal framework. It remains challenging to generate a pan-European debate, one that can surpass the noise of 27 simultaneous national elections that often revolve around domestic issues or examine the national government in office. European political parties are weaker, existing as confederations of national political parties, currently unable to campaign for elections in their own right.

The European elections in May 2019 showed a positive trend, as several topics were common to different countries during the campaign, for example, the challenge of climate change. Turnout also increased for the first time since 1979, exceeding 200 million votes, reaching the symbolic threshold of 50 percent, with a higher participation among younger voters.

However, although the European political parties presented a detailed programme and a candidate to preside the Commission, under the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ principle, it is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of voters were unaware of this reality. This is because neither their image nor their political party logos appeared widely on posters, brochures and electoral advertising, nor on ballot papers.

A pan-European constituency would achieve three objectives, which I consider important and interrelated. Firstly, the European political parties would be reinforced, having the power to select transnational candidates, as well as to campaign in support of them and their programme, with their own logos. Some of these candidates would campaign throughout Europe, not only in their states of origin or residence.

This would contribute to the second objective of the transnational lists: creating a pan-European political and electoral debate across the pan-European constituency, based on transnational candidates and programmes presented by European political parties and overcoming the problems posed by the 27 parallel national elections.

Last, the principle of the lead candidates to head the Commission - rehearsed in 2014 and 2019 - would go from virtual to real, since voters in each country would have two ballot boxes, one for the national list of their election, and another for the transnational list, with the logo of the European political party. This would be specifically headed by the candidate to head the Commission on behalf of the European political family in question. 

Nevertheless, it is true that we must avoid transnational lists favouring candidates from the most populous states, whose parties tend to wield greater influence, to the detriment of candidates from smaller- and medium-sized states. For this reason, I consider a pan-European constituency of 46 Members to be desirable, the maximum allowed by the current Treaty, so that at least one candidate per Member State is represented on the transnational list.

“It remains challenging to generate a pan-European debate, one that can surpass the noise of 27 simultaneous national elections”

It is also important to ensure that candidates from the larger states do monopolise the top positions, which is why a geographical balance is necessary in each section of the list. This would avoid any repetitions of candidates from the same Member State within each section and between consecutive seats.

It would also be desirable for transnational MEPs to designate, after their election, the state for which they will conduct their political activity as a priority, which by default extends to the whole of the Union (something that is also true for current MEPs elected in national constituencies).

European political parties should also develop internal rules to favour geographical balance when drawing up transnational lists. Regarding the election system, the most desirable is a simple, closed list system, with the d’Hondt formula for the allocation of seats, which is the most-widely used in Europe at national level, and one without a minimum threshold, always controversial for minoritarian parties. A European Electoral Authority that enjoys independence and financial autonomy for exercising its functions and which is led by independent personalities should supervise the entire electoral process.

With all these elements, the elections to the European Parliament in 2024 may constitute a new milestone in the federalisation of the Union political system, providing greater interest, legitimacy and strength for our transnational democracy.