A core argument of the pro-Brexit camp during the 2016 referendum was that the European Union was being governed by ‘unelected bureaucrats’ who were not accountable to the citizens of member states. In short that the EU was fundamentally undemocratic, and the UK should leave so regain control of their laws. Therefore, it proves rather ironic that the departure of the UK could in fact lead to a more democratic EU through changes to the way we as EU Citizens elect the European Parliament.
As the UK departs questions were raised over what to do with the outstanding 73 UK seats in the European parliament. Obviously, they won’t be taking up these seats anymore, so should they be shared out amongst the other remaining member states? That was certainly the proposal favours by smaller EU members such as Ireland, Estonia and the other Baltic nations. Some favoured just scrapping them and reducing the total number of Members of the European Parliament. The final suggestion was to introduce trans-national voting lists, a voting system whereby a certain number of seats would be set aside, and every single voter would get a chance to elect these MEPs.
This idea isn’t all that new, some countries even used variations of it in national elections (see Poland, Spain and Israel), but the serious push for it to be use at an EU level is in large part due to French President Emmanuel Macron and his desire to reform the EU. While Macron came to office with a long wish list for EU reform, the transnational voting list is the first idea he has managed to push off the drawing board and into debate. The European Parliament recently had a full debate about the matter, at the end of which the voted not to adopt the proposal.
One could rightly wonder why this idea is even being discussed further then if the institution that it effects voted the proposal down. This is because the EP doesn’t actually get to decide how the seats are distributed, or how voting will be handled in the future. That is decided by either the EU Treaties that all member states are governed by, or by the European Council. The European Council recently voted not to adopt the transnational voting system for the next EP elections in 2019, but left the door open for the changes to come into play after then.
The reason that the Council voted down the proposals to adopt a new voting system for 2019 was the sheer amount of work it would take given the fact that we are just over a year out from the elections it would affect. However, among member states support for the idea is growing. All of the members see it as a way of making the EU seem close to its citizens and of actually pulling the EP political groups away from their national members.
The two big concerns that are left outstanding are the fact that it will most likely result in larger members having more of their nationals elected to the EP, and the legalities of implementation. To address the first issue, if every citizen has a vote on who fills these 73 seats, then obviously candidates from larger countries are at an advantage simply as a result of the larger populations. It is highly unlikely that under the new system that we would see a dramatic uptick in MEPs representing the smaller countries on the periphery of the EU.
Secondly, there seems to be some conflicting advice about how legal it would be to implement a new voting system like this. Changing the number of MEPs is legally quite a simple process as a result of the prior bouts of EU expansion. However, the voting methods by which MEPs are elected vary from country to country and are decided by the member states themselves. Thus far there is no legal provision for transnational voting, presenting a conundrum for proponents of the concept.
In the grand scheme of things this isn’t going to be a earth shattering change. Like most things in the EU it will be debated for many years and changed in a million tiny ways until the end product looks little like what we started with. While the idea might now be in the pipeline, none of the current generation of politicians are likely to benefit from it. We as voters should watch this space carefully however, as the idea has good merits attached to it, and could introduce some new voices to the EP, an area often devoid of any real debate these days.
Beyond that if we want a truly democratic EU, then changes are needed and this could be the change that is needed.
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor