A major democratic deficit was pinpointed twenty years ago by the European Commission. A crucial step towards removing it was accomplished last May.
Philosopher Philippe Van Parijs reflects on current events and debates in Brussels, Belgium and Europe
“The establishment of trans-national lists for the European elections was deemed Utopian a few years ago but this idea is now making some headway. Such a system would certainly contribute to the emergence of a genuine European political awareness and to the establishment of proper European political parties.” So wrote MEP Georgios Anastassopoulos in June 1998, on behalf of the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs.
The European Commission, then chaired by Romano Prodi, liked the idea. It expressed its support for it in a note circulated in January 2000: “The Commission believes that the Union would greatly benefit from having a number of members of the European Parliament elected on European lists, presented to all European voters throughout the Union.” In December 2002, commissioners Michel Barnier and António Vittorino even submitted the idea on behalf of the Commission to the Convention in charge of preparing a European constitution: “Organising European elections in this way”, they said, “will help to enhance democracy at European level.” The proposal, however, did not make it into the text of the draft constitution, and anyway the latter, as we all know, was never ratified.
This does not mean that the idea was dead. The British liberal MEP Andrew Duff had also pleaded to the Convention in 2002 for the creation of a pan-EU constituency, in a version that would see 70 of the 700 MEPs elected in a list-proportional system. In April 2011, he managed to get the Committee on Constitutional Affairs to support his proposal with the number of MEPS elected in the pan-EU constituency reduced from 70 to 25. But the time was not yet ripe. As the advocates of the proposal thought it most unlikely that a majority of MEPs would vote in favour, it was never submitted to a plenary session of the European Parliament.
With the Brexit vote of June 2016, however, a new opportunity arose. Speaking at the Sorbonne in September 2017, President Macron declared: “Starting in 2019, using the quota of vacated British MEP seats, we must create transnational lists that allow Europeans to vote for a consistent common project.” The following year, the European Parliament had to decide how to allocate the 73 seats left empty by the UK’s departure. A proposal to allocate 27 of these seats to a pan-European constituency was submitted to a plenary session of the Parliament in February 2018. It was rejected by 378 votes to 274.
This was not the end of the story, however. After the European elections of June 2019, the Committee on Constitutional Affairs resumed work, this time on the basis of a detailed proposal by the Spanish socialist MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa. After making some amendments, the Committee approved the proposal in July 2021. It was submitted to the plenary session on 3 May 2022 and this time it was adopted by a comfortable majority of 323 votes to 262.
In the proposal approved by the Parliament, the EU-wide constituency has 28 MEPs, elected through a closed-list-proportional system. This means that seats are allocated to lists in proportion to the votes cast on them and that the seats are allocated to candidates on the same list following the order in which they figure on the list. In order to guarantee the trans-national character of the lists, each of them must be formally supported by parties or movements significantly present in at least 7 member states.
And in order to guarantee the election of candidates from smaller member states (and thereby to forestall resistance by their governments), three groups of member states are formed according to the size of their population, and each sequence of three candidates on each list must contain one candidate from each group. Contrary to other proposals of an EU-wide constituency, the one adopted by the European Parliament last May makes no link with the idea of so-called Spitzenkandidaten: it does not stipulate that the leader of the winning list is ipso facto elected president of the Commission.
The adoption of this precise proposal by the European Parliament is a crucial step forward, but not yet a decisive one. The European Council must now approve it unanimously, possibly with amendments to which the Parliament must give its consent. And it must subsequently be ratified in all 27 member states. Needless to say, this will not be an easy ride.
In Belgium, an analogous idea had also been around since the 1990s. In 2007, the Pavia Group put forward a precise proposal that triggered a rich discussion and gathered wide support, but a two-thirds majority in both houses of the federal parliament is required and far from guaranteed. In both the European and the Belgian case, advocates of the proposal need to overcome the general difficulty of getting people in power to change the rules that gave them that power. In both cases, they face above all the difficulty of circumventing the principled nationalist opposition of those who believe that monolingual nations are the only level at which it makes sense to develop a “demos” and operate a democracy.
Yet, these obstacles must be overcome. A healthy democratic life is fundamentally a conversation that involves directly or indirectly the whole “demos”, the entire people for which and in whose name collective decisions are being made. For a representative democracy to function properly, it is crucial that the electoral space, the arena in which political parties compete and argue with one another, should coincide with the perimeter of this “demos”.
This is generally not too difficult to achieve in monolingual states, with a single media space and with political parties competing for the voters’ favour in all corners of the country. It is far harder to achieve in linguistically divided polities, such as Belgium and the European Union, with different media and different parties operating in its various components. Some ad-hoc institutional engineering is then required, and a federation-wide constituency is part of the bricolage that is needed.
The European Commission understood this twenty years ago. Since May we know that the European Parliament does so too. Shall we have to wait another twenty years for the European Council to follow?