Voting for MEPs from other countries? It could be on the way

Electoral reform at EU level has been on the agenda for years.

The Netherlands’ ‘open list’ PR system makes their ballot papers even more complex
The Netherlands’ ‘open list’ PR system makes their ballot papers even more complex

ON 3 May MEPs in the European Parliament adopted a proposal for significant changes to EU elections.

The changes would involve standardising some elements of EU elections in the 27 member states, as well as introducing an EU-wide constituency for the first time, through which voters can vote for MEPs from other countries. Voters would also get a greater say in electing the president of the European Commission through the Spitzenkandidaten process.

Electoral reform at EU level has been on the agenda for years. In 2018, the European Council (all the heads of state of the 27 EU countries) did not support a proposal to introduce transnational (across different nations) lists for the 2019 European elections, saying that they would return to the issue “in the future, with a view to the 2024 elections”.

The momentum for electoral reform has continued growing since then. In 2019, turnout for the European elections reached over 200 million for the first time, with increased participation by younger voters. There was also more focus on issues that went beyond national concerns, such as climate change.

As well as this, the recent final report from the Conference on the Future of Europe – a year-long initiative that asked citizens what they expected from the EU and what they want for the future – contained a number of provisions for electoral change.

In Recommendation 16 from panel two, participants called for laws to harmonise electoral conditions across the EU:

“European citizens should have the right to vote for different European Union level parties that each consist of candidates from multiple Member States. During a sufficient transition period, citizens could still vote for both national and transnational parties.”

The purpose of this recommendation was to ensure the EU could “build a sense of unity, which could be achieved by a truly unified election of the European Parliament”.

So, what will these electoral reforms look like? And how likely are they to be implemented?

The electoral reforms

Under the proposed reforms countries will continue to vote for their MEPs in the usual manner. There are currently 705 seats in the EU parliament. In Ireland, for example, voters will vote to elect 13 MEPs in different national constituencies, as they have done previously.

As well as this, however, voters will also be asked to vote to elect MEPs to a new constituency of 28 seats. This will be a pan-European constituency, which will allow people to select candidates from outside their country for the first time.

The candidates for this constituency will be put forward by the European parties – the coalition groups that MEPs form a part of in the EU Parliament. At EU level, all MEPs are part of different groupings. So, for example, Fianna Fáil MEPs are all part of the Renew Europe group, while Fine Gael MEPs are part of the European People’s Party.

These parties will reach a consensus on candidates, and put them forward for election on numbered lists. Voters will then be able to vote for these candidates in order of preference.

As candidates will be able to collect votes in different countries, they will have to campaign in other regions aside from their own nation, under the banner of their European party. Candidates will be split between lists of large, medium and small countries, with quotas ensuring smaller nations don’t get left behind.Transnational debate

According to Spanish MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa, European Parliament rapporteur on European electoral law, there are a number of objectives with these reforms.

“We want first of all to have a more transnational debate at the time of the campaign,” he told The Journal.

“I think everyone agrees that this is part of the consensus that the European elections so far are not sufficiently European. That it’s very much dominated by domestic issues.”

With this new system, Ruiz Devesa said, candidates will have to travel to other nations, and focus on themes and concerns that cross national boundaries, rather than only looking at domestic issues.

“By and large they will have to address topics that are of common interest to all Europeans,” he said.

These topics include climate change, migration, digitalisation, security and the wider world, and how to prepare for pandemics, among others.

“And those are the themes of the future of Europe, so the campaign should revolve around those topics and with these candidates that have to go around and collect votes and campaign everywhere,” said Ruiz Devesa.

He said that national debates will still play a role in the campaigns, but that now there will be a “double dynamic”.

“We will have a richer campaign on top, over and above purely national debate, you will have a stronger pan-European debate in the election.”

Ruiz Devesa also said that the extra candidates would increase the profile of European parties, as candidates will campaign more prominently under the banner of these parties, making them more well-known. 

As well as this, parties will broker which candidates from the national parties are selected, increasing their power and responsibilities.

“You are also giving not just visibility but also power to European political parties,” he said.

“And by giving them visibility and power you make them more important than what they are now, which are loose confederations of national political parties.”

Other objectives

As well as these objectives, the reforms would also allow the Spitzenkandidaten principle to become the norm. Under the Spitzenkandidaten process, European parties select a top candidate for the role of president of the European Commission. The party that then wins the most seats at EU level would see their candidate get the role.

This was the process that led to Jean-Claude Junker being selected in 2014. However, the 2019 candidate was rejected by country leaders in favour of current president Ursula von der Leyen, which caused controversy at the time.

Under the proposed reforms, the Spitzenkandidate (literally “lead candidate” in German) would be formalised, with the top party selecting the European Commission president.

MEPs also voted for further reforms to the EU electoral system. These include measures to improve the gender balance of MEPs, to increase voting opportunities for people with disabilities and to allow for postal voting.

The reforms would also see 9 May become the common European voting day across the 27 EU member states.

Will the reforms succeed?

The proposed reforms were passed by the EU Parliament on 3 May by a majority of MEPs. However, that was only a step in the lengthy process of actually implementing them in time for the 2024 elections and beyond.

Next, the proposals must get the approval of all the individual EU heads of state (the European Council), before being ratified nationally and then returning to be voted on by MEPs.

The European Council has six-month rotating presidencies. The proposals will likely be put before the Council during the Czech presidency, which will last from July to the end of this year.

So, how likely is it that these measures will be in place by the 2024 elections?

“We are aiming for [2024] and it is possible,” said Luiz Revesa.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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