If Emmanuel Macron had his way, the EU electorate would get two votes in European Parliament elections — one for an MEP from their national or regional constituency, and one for a transnational list of candidates from across the Continent.
But the proposal for how to reallocate some of the 73 seats made vacant by Britain’s exit is unlikely to be adopted in time for the next EU election in 2019, meaning it will be delayed at least until 2024, according to senior EU officials and politicians.
Macron sees transnational candidate lists as a way to boost interest in EU elections, where turnout is traditionally feeble. At the last vote, in 2014, just 42.6 percent of eligible voters turned out, down from 62 percent in 1979. One of his major talking points in promoting greater European integration, the list plan has gained traction of late among an increasing number of EU leaders.
But there is stiff opposition from the Visegrad Four bloc of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, and from the European People’s Party (EPP), which is the largest group in Parliament. The logistical difficulty of changing electoral laws in all EU countries will also delay the plan, officials said.
“Given the different requirements and legal systems across the 27 member states, it’s just not going to be a factor for these elections” — Dara Murphy, EPP 2019 campaign director
Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP group in the Parliament, said his faction would oppose transnational lists in a plenary vote on the matter next week. And Dara Murphy, who is directing the EPP’s 2019 campaign, said he was confident that the idea could not be approved in time for next year’s vote.
“Given the different requirements and legal systems across the 27 member states, it’s just not going to be a factor for these elections,” Murphy said.
The delay would be at least a temporary setback for Macron, who engineered a joint statement last month with the leaders of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, in which they declared that transnational lists “could strengthen the democratic dimension of the Union.”
Boon for populists
French officials have insisted there is still enough time to adopt transnational lists for next year’s European election, and that it is only a matter of political will.
But opponents of the idea said the likely delay came as a relief. Transnational lists seem an attractive idea on the surface, they said, but pose grave risks of empowering anti-EU movements, and of reducing the ability of EU countries to have their national interests fully represented in the European Parliament.
“As encompassed by the Treaties, the democratic control of Member States over legislative and political processes of the EU should follow the principle of subsidiarity,” the Visegrad Four said in a statement. “It should be considered how vital national interests can be safeguarded under the present voting system, bearing in mind that the European Council is destined to be a broker where sensitive issues are on the table.”
The Parliament will vote next week on an overall proposal for reapportioning following the U.K.’s departure on March 29, 2019, when it will relinquish 73 seats. The Parliament plan calls for holding 46 of those seats in reserve for possible pan-European candidate lists and for countries that might join the EU in the future.
An EPP official said the group would discuss whether they support the general reapportioning, but vote against the transnational lists, which Weber warned would create greater distance between voters and MEPs.
“We want Europe to get closer to citizens,” Weber told POLITICO. “Voters need a direct link with their MEPs. The transnational lists provide the exact opposite effect.”
Other critics say transnational lists would be a far more effective tool for populist movements, whose anti-EU message resonates more easily across national borders, than it would be for proponents of EU integration, who often support the bloc for different reasons.
“If you’re a candidate on those lists it makes no sense to campaign in the small member states, but only in the large member states” — György Shöpflin, Hungarian MEP
“The list would probably be utilized by populist movements that would then get further visibility and capitalize on their extremist views around Europe,” said Ivan Štefanec, a Slovakian MEP, in a video posted by the EPP on Facebook.
Another concern is that transnational lists would favor candidates from big EU countries over small ones.
“If you’re a candidate on those lists it makes no sense to campaign in the small member states, but only in the large member states,” György Shöpflin, a Hungarian MEP from the EPP, said in the same video statement.
A Lithuanian diplomat said the country has “reservations” about transnational lists, “as they could diminish accountability, could have a negative effect for representation of smaller member states in the European Parliament, further reducing the participation in the Parliament elections.”
The issue will be on the agenda at a summit of EU27 leaders later this month in Brussels, where they will also discuss if and how they might support theSpitzenkandidat (lead candidate) system for choosing the next European Commission president.
The European Council must approve the reapportionment changes in the Parliament, and there is rising concern among some EU leaders that the process has dragged on too long, leaving dangerously little time to win ratification in national legislatures.
Enacting the change is easier in France, where the National Assembly will soon vote on a new electoral law, compared to a country like Belgium, where adopting such changes can take up to a year because approval is needed from regional parliaments.
Under the European Parliament’s current proposal, it would be up to European political parties to set up their transnational lists of candidates and compete for those seats in the Parliament.
Officials in the Parliament insist such lists would be geographically balanced to avoid favoring the bigger countries in the EU.