Transnational lists and lead candidates only way to bring ‘European dimension’ to MEP elections says Danny Cohn-Bendit

Former MEP tells CONT Committee there’s urgent need to bring back democratic dimension to European elections.
Daniel Cohn Bendit MEP

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

25 Sep 2020

Former MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit has told a parliamentary hearing that transnational lists in the next European elections will boost voter turnout.

He also threw his weight behind the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system for electing the President of the European Commission.

The former high-profile Greens deputy said, “In future, the elections need to be run on a true EU programme and transnational lists are the only way to achieve this.”

He was speaking from Berlin via a video link on Thursday to a meeting of the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs (CONT) Committee.

The hearing included presentations by legal experts and a discussion with the committee’s MEPs.

Although there was an improvement in the 2019 poll, voter turnout in the European elections, held every five years, is traditionally low, particularly compared with national elections. Various attempts have been made over the years to boost interest in the EU-wide poll but, generally, to little or no avail.

Electoral reform is expected to be one of the top issues for the delayed Conference on the Future of Europe. The conference, which will look at ways of reigniting the EU project, was due to start in March but has been delayed because of the Coronavirus crisis and also inter-institutional wrangling between the Parliament and Council, including over who should head the forum.

The conference, lasting up to two years, is expected to finally get underway this autumn.

Cohn-Bendit, one of the most prominent of former MEPs, told the meeting, “It is very clear that the Euros are not European elections at all. They are 27 national elections that happen to mention a bit about Europe with the focus on the political problems facing each member state.”

“It is very clear that the Euros are not European elections at all. They are 27 national elections that happen to mention a bit about Europe with the focus on the political problems facing each member state” 

Under his proposal most MEPs would still be elected as they are now but, in addition to the main list, there would be a second list of candidates consisting of 30 to 40 names, with at least one candidate from each member state.

Cohn-Bendit, who served in the European parliament from 1994 to 2014, said, “These candidates would campaign all over Europe, and not just in their own country. They would be forced to talk about Europe and stand on an EU programme.”

As well as pan EU-wide lists he also said he supports the Spitzenkandidaten system, whereby the Commission President would be the “lead” candidate from the political party that emerges as the winner in the European elections.

There were calls for such a process to be used for the 2019 elections and former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was said to be a fan. But Ursula von der Leyen was elected president by the council, or Member States, which is the traditional method.

Cohn-Bendit explained how the Spitzenkandidaten system would work, saying, “The parties would choose their lead candidates and they would campaign on a strictly European and EU platform.

“The lead candidates would not just hold debates in Brussels, where, let’s face it, no one watches or listens to them apart from other MEPs and people in the Brussels ‘bubble’, but across the whole of Europe.”

A lead candidate would have to be a “personality” who “embodies” the EU and can arouse interest in the bloc, he added.

“Yes, there will be lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ from some but we urgently need to bring back a democratic dimension to European elections because the 27 national debates we have now bring no added value”

“This would give you 27 European debates in each member state with the lead candidate from each party. This, in turn, would generate increased visibility for the elections and, crucially, create a new audience to discuss EU issues.”

The former veteran MEP told the hearing, “Clearly, if you want a European dimension to these elections you need a real European debate and the only way to do that is with transnational lists and lead candidates.”

“Currently, EU issues are seen only through the prism of a ‘national point of view and a national vision.’

“I have taken part in many European elections so I know what I am talking about; if we can bring about this reform it would be an incredible innovation.”

He said, “Yes, there will be lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ from some but we urgently need to bring back a democratic dimension to European elections because the 27 national debates we have now bring no added value.”

“My message to you today is: when it comes to change, don’t be afraid to think big.”

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