Brussels Behind the Scenes: A new way to vote

Brussels Behind the Scenes: A new way to vote
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BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAM MORGAN

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A new way to vote

European elections often struggle to attract much attention, leaving the EU open to accusations of a democratic deficit during the five years that follow the vote. This week, MEPs kicked off their efforts to try and change that.

On paper – and despite what Europhobes claim – the European Union is a rather democratic structure that has quite a lot of built-in accountability. There may be “unelected bureaucrats” but the people in charge of them are there by the grace of democracy.

EU elections every five years give hundreds of millions of voters the chance to elect 705 representatives, with those results then directly influencing who is appointed president of the European Commission.

National elections of course determine which head of state or government jets off to Brussels every couple of months for European Council summits and which ministers sit in the various council formations.

European Commissioners are appointed by those very governments and in some cases like Luxembourg or even Germany, the role is part of the election manifesto or coalition agreement.

Despite the best intentions though, EU democracy does not always work out this way and for a couple of decades now, these democratic structures have started to look a bit outdated compared with the gradual evolution of the EU as a whole.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


In 2019, turnout may have bucked a declining trend but it still only just topped 50% with substantial differences between the 27 member states. Electoral law is, after all, predominantly set by governments not Brussels.

As Volt Europa MEP Damian Boeselager points out, the way Europeans vote has not fundamentally changed over the last 40 years, despite an additional 200 million extra citizens joining the EU in the meantime.

At the last EU-wide poll, the Spitzenkandidat process for appointing the Commission president was also abandoned, just one legislative cycle after it was debuted and used to elevate Jean-Claude Juncker to the top job.

Ursula von der Leyen was parachuted into the presidency by Council leaders at the eleventh hour when a deal on one of the other candidates was proclaimed dead on arrival. It was an unpleasant episode of EU horse-trading that still rankles with lawmakers.

MEPs on the constitutional committee voted this week on a package of reforms that would resuscitate Spitzenkandidat and actually make the election of the next Commission president a far more democratic affair.

According to the agreed text, which still needs approval from a full sitting of MEPs and the EU Council, wannabe Commission heads would be included on transnational lists and citizens would have an extra vote to choose their pick.

In practice, this means that, for example, a Romanian citizen could use their second vote to show their support for a Danish or Dutch politician seeking the Commission job.

If this is set in stone as the method to select the next president, it gives Ursula von der Leyen both an extra hurdle to overcome but also an opportunity to stay in her job, should she even want to serve another five years.

The new German government does not include her national party, the CDU, and the Greens secured first dibs at picking the next European Commissioner, so long as that individual is not standing for president. This narrows von der Leyen’s chances.

But her profile is in the ascendancy. For better or worse, her nearly three years in the job has propelled her from being a relatively unknown former German defence minister to a name that is more recognisable both in Europe and abroad.

She has after all been in charge of the EU executive during two of the most demanding crises in decades. Gaffes, errors and disappointing responses aside, she is the first female president and is not out of place among world leaders.

This may stand her in good stead if she has to go down the transnational list route and if her EPP group emerges as the winner again in 2024. No certain thing.

If the Council throws its toys out of the pram again and resorts to backroom deals, von der Leyen will also be in the running as she has closely aligned herself with powerful players such as Emmanuel Macron and Pedro Sanchez.

Much can change in two years, of course.

More reform

Spitzenkandidaten will not be the only people on those transnational lists, MEPs are pushing for 28 additional spots in an attempt to create the fabled pan-European demos that has not quite materialised yet.

“With transnational campaigns, we will be able to create a real pan-European debate so that voters are given much more opportunity to look beyond the domestic politics,” says Socialist MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa, who is leading the reform process.

Other changes include standardised minimum electoral standards such as voting age and voter thresholds. The deal also sets 9 May as the preferred voting day, in another attempt to boost the profile of the elections.

A plenary vote in early May is now on the docket and full Council approval will be needed to write all of the updates into law. That is a tall order but member states will have to come up with some decent excuses not to implement most if not all of these reforms.

 

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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