Doubts cast on value of EU’s proposed ‘European election reforms

Legal experts clash over argument that transnational lists may deepen ‘democratic deficit’ between MEPs and voters.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

02 Oct 2020

Legal experts have cast serious doubt on two of the main proposals for reforming the EU.

They say that one of the recommendations, for transnational lists in the European elections, could even deepen the “democratic deficit” between the EU and voters.

A reformed election system and a new way of electing the European Commission president, known as the Spitzenkandidaten process, will be high on the agenda of the delayed Conference on the Future of Europe when it finally gets underway.

Under the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, each political party would nominate a so-called “lead candidate” in the elections; the party that emerges as the winner would nominate that person for the Commission Presidency, widely seen as the European Union’s top job.

This, it is argued, would allow voters to know before the election who could potentially become the Commission President, hence increasing visibility in the process.

“[Transnational lists] do not promote democracy but reduces it and also the legitimacy of those elected. This is one reason why the system has not been used in elections. There are arguments for and against such lists but it would create more problems than it would solve” János Martonyi, Professor of international trade and European law at the University of Public Service in Budapest

Another suggested reform is for EU wide transnational lists in the next European elections. The idea was mooted for the 2019 poll but did not gain enough support at member state level.

But legal academics taking part in a European Parliament debate, said they doubted if either of the proposals will work in practice.

Speaking via video link to a meeting of parliament’s influential Constitutional Affairs Committee, János Martonyi, professor of international trade and European law at the University of Public Service in Budapest, said that to introduce transnational lists, current rules would require treaty change, an extreme rarity in the EU world.

Martonyi also told the committee that EU-wide, rather than national, lists would in fact “deepen the distance” between voters and those elected.

“This does not promote democracy but reduces it and also the legitimacy of those elected. This is one reason why the system has not been used in elections.”

He added, “There are arguments for and against such lists but it would create more problems than it would solve.”

On the Spitzenkandidaten process, he said, “This would need a treaty change with all the consequences and repercussions that involves.

“The question also is how do you interpret the European election results? Voters usually vote for political parties, not individual candidates, and the competition is among these parties. The results reflect the outcome of this.”

He said, “Clearly, any institutional changes should only come in after very thorough discussions.”

“The aim [of transnational lists] is for a greater cross EU-wide basis for the European elections. This is necessary because sometimes national issues are too prominent in the Euros. The idea is to promote the European angle. But the legal and political obstacles to overcome are extremely tricky” Christine Verger, Vice President of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris

Another participant, Christine Verger, Vice President of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, said the idea of transnational dates to the 1990s when it was championed by former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff and led to various parliamentary votes which had been voted down “due to hostility by the majority of members.”

Verger said that, under the system, each voter would vote from a pan-European list made of candidates who are drawn not from national parties but from the European political families.”

“The aim is for a greater cross EU-wide basis for the European elections. This is necessary because sometimes national issues are too prominent in the Euros. The idea is to promote the European angle.”

“But the legal and political obstacles to overcome are extremely tricky because you would need unanimity and ratification by all EU Member State parliaments. You’d also need a uniform electoral law to allow this to happen.”

She said that, currently, groups in the European Parliament are “divided” on the issue with “many” in the EPP and ECR “hostile” as are the assembly’s Eurosceptics.

“Currently, it is heads of state who decide who will be Commission President but there is an argument for the ‘personalisation’ of the process with [Spitzenkandidaten] lead candidates. This could help boost voter turnout, increase the democratic legitimacy of the elections and help what you might call the ‘Europeanisation” of political parties” Professor Andreas Maurer, of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Innsbruck

Explaining, she told MEPs, “It has been said, for example, that an MEP elected under this system in France but who does not live in France could not possibly understand the needs of his French constituents.”

Such a situation, she argued, “could give rise to increased populism and nationalism”.

The Greens/EFA group in the parliament are in favour as are a majority of the Socialist group. Former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was also a fan, although he said the 2019 elections were “too soon,” to roll it out.

“Current Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen has said it is for the conference on Europe’s future to discuss such reforms,” said Verger, adding, “While the list system should not be seen as a confrontation between pro and anti EU camps, there’s still lot of work to do so I hope the conference on Europe’s future will deal with this in depth.”

A third speaker, Professor Andreas Maurer, of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Innsbruck, also voiced reservations about the Spitzenkandidaten process, warning it could create a “huge conflict” between the European Parliament and some Member States.

But he told the committee, “Currently, it is heads of state who decide who will be Commission President but there is an argument for the ‘personalisation’ of the process with lead candidates.

“This could help boost voter turnout, increase the democratic legitimacy of the elections and help what you might call the ‘Europeanisation” of political parties.”

“Conversely, it is usually hard to identify who is the actual winner of the elections until months into the mandate. The reason for this is that parties often switch from one political group in the European Parliament to another so it is not so clear who has won.

“Member States could also say that a lead candidate whose party has, say, only 25 percent in the election has no legitimacy to say who the president should be.

“I disagree, though, that treaty change is needed. Parliament and council just need to sit down and discuss a new process.”

 

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