Electoral reform is a good example of what the EU can do post-Brexit, says Andrew Duff

The European Parliament's soon-to-be empty seats can be put to good use, says former ALDE MEP

Andrew Duff | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Andrew Duff

15 Sep 2017

One of the more interesting aspects of Brexit is to consider what can be achieved by the EU without the British that it has not been able to achieve with the British. Electoral reform is a very good example.

British ministers in the Council were without exception opposed to the federalist concept of transnational lists, as was a very large majority of British MEPs. The departure of the UK will not only remove these political obstacles but will also leave vacant 73 seats in the next Parliament.

Those empty seats can be put to good use.

Seizing the initiative, Emmanuel Macron, true to his manifesto, has taken up the proposal for a transnational European constituency at the level of the European Council. The Italian government, with its long-serving Minister of Europe Sandro Gozi, launched the matter in the first place.
The Belgian and Spanish governments are also in favour.

Martin Schulz for the SPD, along with the German Liberals and Greens, back the plan. In the Parliament, the federalist cause is led by the Liberal leader (and Brexit coordinator) Guy Verhofstadt. He won a vote in November 2015 to include a reference to a “joint constituency” in the Parliament’s most recent report on electoral reform (which otherwise merely tinkered annoyingly on the edges of the problem). But now, just at this moment when the time appears to be ripe for radical change, MEPs are in danger of losing the plot.

The most recent draft report on the matter from the Constitutional Affairs Committee appears not to accept that the UK is leaving the European Union before the next elections in May 2019.

The co-rapporteurs, Danuta Hübner (EPP) and Pedro Silva Pereira (S&D), use the excuse of uncertainty surrounding Brexit to put off until 2024 the two critical decisions about the formula for seat apportionment and the introduction of transnational lists. Instead, they would merely use 51 of the UK’s 73 vacant seats to reduce (but not eliminate) the abuse of the principle of degressive proportionality.

This adjustment to the distribution of seats among member states would take place at some unspecified date after the actual 2019 election once Brussels had noticed that the Brits had gone.
The rapporteurs, furthermore, attempt to muddle the argument over the composition of the Parliament by raising the question of voting weights in the Council.

The issue of balance between the two chambers of the bicameral legislature is indeed something that needs to be raised at the next Convention which will be called to revise the Treaty of Lisbon once the British have well and truly left.

But nobody has asked MEPs to raise that matter now, for which there is no legal necessity.

And if MEPs cannot make progress on reforming their own internal affairs they are scarcely eligible to interfere in the internal affairs of the Council. Such prevarication – “the time is not ripe” – and the lazy thinking behind the draft AFCO report amounts to a political fix that, were it to be adopted in its present form, would put the Parliament in disrepute – and even at risk of being found by the European Court of Justice of having failed to act correctly.

The divvying up of parliamentary seats between states had always been subject to unseemly bartering, usually in the early hours of the morning at the close of some fractious intergovernmental conference called to amend the treaties.

As things stand today, however, French, British and Spanish MEPs represent more folk than German MEPs; Dutch MEPs represent more than Romanian; Swedish and Austrians more than Hungarian; Danes more than Bulgarian; and Irish more than Slovak.

Today, circumstances have thrown the European Parliament a golden opportunity to take a major step in the federal direction – but it looks as though MEPs are going to retreat again.

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