RevDem Thread: Transnational lists and beyond. How to democratise Europe?

This is our first RevDem thread – a series of short pieces answering key questions about modern democracies from top experts and practitioners in the field. We invite all interested authors to send further comments to our email address: 

The Key Question: One of the key components of the German coalition agreement, and now also the mid-term agreement of the three biggest political groups in the European Parliament, is support for the reform of European electoral law. This would involve, among other things, the introduction of transnational lists in which a small number of seats in the European Parliament would be elected from a single pool of candidates for the entire European Union. Are you for or against this proposal, and what are your reasons? What other institutional reforms do you believe are necessary for the European Union?

Alberto Alemanno (Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris and initiator of the Voters Without Borders’ European Citizen Initiative)

70 years after its creation, the European Parliament is neither a Parliament nor is it ‘European’.

It’s not a Parliament as it lacks the right of legislative initiative, and it is not ‘European’ insofar as its members are elected in 27 different national elections, according to different national electoral laws, among candidates selected by national – as opposed to EU – parties, running on political programs driven by domestic issues. 

As a result, despite attaining unprecedented socio-economic integration, the EU lacks a European, autonomous political system capable of fostering a genuine and informed transnational space of dialogue where citizens can understand, influence, and participate in decision-making affecting their common interests as Europeans. 

This reality clashes with the logic of ‘transnational parliamentary democracy’ injected by the Treaty of Lisbon into the EU constitutional order. Since 2009, the members of the European Parliament represent all European citizens, and not only their constituency. Secondly, the EU Treaties require that the president of the EU Commission be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its members, upon the proposal of the European Council. This nods in the direction of a system of parliamentary democracy, in which the European Commission – like a national executive – sets its political priorities and is accountable to the EP and EU citizens for its performance. Yet, when it comes to political representation, unless a clear link between the votes cast by citizens and the formation of the European Commission is established, the parliamentary logic can’t kick in, nor the ensuing control by Parliament.

To many (including those in this RevDem thread), it might appear unrealistic to transform a union of demographically and economically heterogeneous states into a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy, where a transnational parliament matters as much as the states. Yet one of the major lessons of the last decade of EU integration is that those who make decisions having a transnational impact – be it the joint procurement of vaccines or new fiscal rules – must emerge from a transnational electoral process. In other words, in a union made up of states and citizens, decision-makers must represent both. 

As I have been arguing both in my scholarship and advocacy over the last 20 years, only a common structure of competition may incentivize the development of a genuine transnational party system. That is the rationale behind the so-called Spitzenkandidaten (or ‘lead candidate’) process, whereby each pan-European party is expected to select a lead candidate for its electoral campaign, who might then become the president of the European Commission. Yet this remains unintelligible to the many, and its automaticity was contested before eventually being set aside by the European Council through the rocambolesque, surprise appointment of Ursula von der Leyen to the helm of the Commission.  

Hence, this is the reason for the merit of moving towards a more genuine election process that requires political parties to present, amongst others, transnational candidate lists in a single EU-wide cross-border constituency, as opposed to the 27 systems used to select the members of the EU Parliament at present. For the first time, this would require European political parties – and therefore their national members – to present one political manifesto, supported by one pool of candidates, to all EU citizens across the territory of the whole Union. As such, this would result in the creation of genuinely transnational Euro-parties, which would suddenly render intelligible to the average voter how her national political force of reference situates itself along the EU political spectrum. Only this could make her aware of the EU-level consequences of her vote. The convergence between the EU and national party systems through a gradual process of Europeanization may in turn pave the way for the emergence of an EU public space. This space, similar to what it is currently being experimented with at small scale within the Conference on the Future of Europe, may be capable of presenting citizens with opposing views on pan-EU policy issues across the continent and translate this into an embryonic EU public sphere.

What is holding back Europe – from climate inaction, to migration and its foreign policy – is the absence of a European political space inhabited by truly transnational political forces representing citizens’ views and competing claims at the EU level. The establishment of a pan-EU constituency populated by transnational lists offers a plausible, legally-sound, and worthy attempt at unleashing a European collective political imagination.

Damian Boeselager (MEP, Greens, Co-Founder of Volt Europa)

As a representative of the first pan-European party that ran across 8 countries for the 2019 elections and is set to run across all 27 Member States for the 2024 elections, I am a strong believer in the proposal for giving EU citizens a true European vote. Above all, the creation of a truly pan-European vote will advance European democracy for the following reasons

A second vote for a European politicians will make them more accountable and bring Europe closer to citizens. A recent study carried out in Portugal and Romania showed an overwhelming support for transnational lists in both countries (> 78% in favour). While this in itself is an incredibly positive result, more interestingly is that even those citizens that doubt the EU or its democratic accountability (i.e. have a negative perception of the functioning of the EU) see transnational lists as a positive instrument that could bring about a desired change to make Europe more transparent and more accountable. I believe that by giving European citizens a vote for the political direction of Europe every five years, they can evaluate every five years whether their previous vote has achieved what it promised or whether their vote should change. Currently, citizens can only vote for or against their national representatives in the European Parliament. They are unable to affect the direction of the European Parliament or the European Commission. With a transnational vote, you give Europeans the right to deselect a European Parliamentarian or a European Commission President! In contrast to what opponents to transnational lists say, citizens actually believe that transnational lists would create greater accountability and address the democratic deficit that many feel exists in the EU.

A pan-European vote leads to a truly European electoral campaign and public debate. As a result of a true European vote, politicians will be forced to go beyond borders to campaign for their vision for Europe. This will generate a political campaign across Europe leading to Europeans debating Europe with European politicians. Up until now, the outcome of a Hungarian vote was completely independent of what other Europeans have voted. A pan-European vote will change that! Furthermore, it will force European politicians to listen to all Europeans when voting on or drafting policies. This is the purpose of the European Parliament, let’s make this purpose a reality.

It will lead to greater innovation and create more competition in EU politics. Giving Europeans a second vote for a European political party or movement will incentivise all political parties to go beyond their national political programmes and cooperate with other Member States’ political parties, or create new movements and parties from scratch in Member States where they are not yet established. The close exchange between political parties from different Member States or the creation of new political ideas will add to the political competition within a country and generate new ideas in the dusty political cultures of today.

While there are a multitude of institutional reforms necessary to truly make the European Union a democratic powerhouse, a first important step, building on the introduction of transnational lists, is to equip the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU institution, with the right to translate citizens’ votes and wishes into policy via the right to initiate legislation. Only when the European Parliament has the ‘right to initiate legislation’, citizens will be able to see the results of their vote implemented.

Tanja Börzel (Freie Universität, Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science, Director of the Center for European Integration, Berlin)

I certainly support the introduction of transnational lists. But I don’t expect it to alleviate the democratic deficit of the EU. The link between (transnationally selected) MEPs and European citizens would remain weak given the number of EU citizens represented by one MEP. Most citizens do not know their MEP, and this will not change when they come from other Member States.

There are clear limits to what the EP can do to bring the EU closer to its citizens, not only because of its limited size. The EU’s democratic deficit resides at the national rather than at the EU level. The “losers of European Integration” (Mauer/Wessels) are the national and regional parliaments. They have to ratify decisions taken in Brussels, if they come in the form of EU directives, which is increasingly less common. The Lisbon Treaty for the first time formally acknowledges the role of national parliaments in EU law-making. It establishes an early warning mechanism (“the yellow card”), which Member State parliaments can invoke to have the Commission review a draft proposal, if one-third of them consider it a violation of the principle of subsidiarity. Yet, attempts to involve national parliaments in EU law-making ultimately meet the same constraints as attempts to give the EP a greater role or make it more transnational. Moreover, as long as national governments seek to depoliticize controversial decisions by delegating them to non-majoritarian institutions (the Commission, comitology, the European Central Bank (ECB)) rather than making them subject to parliamentary debate at home, there is little hope to close the EU’s representation gap.

Institutional reforms of the EP are unlikely to counter the dynamics of executive federalism in the EU system of multilevel governance. What is needed is the political will of Member State governments to give their citizens a greater voice in EU policy-making at the domestic level. Shirking the responsibility of taking controversial decisions by granting Brussels the authority to make them will only fuel right-wing populism in Europe.

Anna Donáth (MEP, Renew Europe; President, Momentum Movement – Hungary)

I am in favour of the proposal to introduce transnational lists, just like my group in the European Parliament. We have also agreed among the three leading political groups that we will support a lead candidate process, combined with transnational lists, with a sufficient number of seats to be in place for the next European elections.

I think we should not be afraid to think about a real European Union and to introduce bold changes.

Back in 2019, the Spitzenkandidat system did not live up to expectations. Admittedly, it sounded very good that people would vote for the President of the Commission, but the European Parliamentary elections were held on a national basis just as before: you could vote for your own politicians from national parties, who did not talk about the European vision of their party family during the campaign, but about issues from home. So, what is the solution if we want to move forward in this direction? We move to a pan-European solution. Not with a single window-dressing candidate, but properly.

So I think a transnational list would be important alongside the traditional one because, in the current electoral system, European issues and topics are often overridden by domestic issues. Also, it is essential to have a list of MEPs with a comprehensive European agenda because the EU cannot be approached through 27 different lenses.

A system of top candidates and a common EU list would help to strengthen “the European demos” and provide a European perspective for many important political issues.

Overall, the European Parliament decides on the future of Europe. Therefore, the European Parliamentary elections should also be about European issues and Members of the European Parliament should represent all European voters. We should aim to bring the European Union closer to our constituencies and to the people of Europe. That is why I support the idea that the European party families should each have a common European list, and that all European citizens should be able to vote for them in the European Parliamentary elections.

Federico Fabbrini (Full Professor of EU Law, Founding Director of Brexit Institute, PI of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence REBUILD, Dublin City University)

As the other contributions to this debate show, support for the idea of transnational lists for the European Parliament (EP) is strong among pro-European thought leaders. As a federalist, however, I always found this idea surprising. No other federal union, in fact, has anything close to transnational lists for the election of the lower house of the federal legislature. In the United States, members of the House of Representatives are elected in districts that respect state borders (see Article I, sec. 2, US Const.). And in Switzerland too, members of the National Council are also elected in constituencies which track the cantons (see Article 149 of the Swiss Const.). There are good reasons why this is so. First, this reflects the federal nature of these unions, recognizing the founding role of the states. Secondly, this secures fair representation in the lower house of the federal legislature of small federated entities, as voters in each state or canton are entitled to elect at least one representative. To this day, this is exactly the same in the EU: MEPs are elected in state-based constituencies, and thanks to the principle of degressive proportionality, voters in smaller member states still get to elect a minimum of representatives, and thus have a voice. This arrangement has practical consequences, as recently proven by the rise to the seat of EP President of Roberta Metsola, who comes from Malta, the smallest EU member state (population: 440,000).

The proposal to introduce transnational lists seeks to pursue a welcome objective: namely to increase the politicization of EP elections, and therefore the democratization of the EU. But it is questionable whether it can achieve these goals, and what would be its drawbacks. On the one hand, the EP is already a vibrant democratic arena, and the current state-based electoral system has not prevented it from becoming an influential EU institution, and promoting the supranational interest. On the other hand, transnational lists may even damage the EP by creating two classes of MEPs. Crucially, then, the proposal to establish transnational lists – with the implicit effort to enhance the parliamentarization of the EU – would not be able to counter-balance the rise of the European Council. To be clear, as I have argued in a report commissioned by the EP, the current system of EU governance is not fit for purpose, and the EU must be reformed to increase its effectiveness and legitimacy. Nevertheless, this mainly requires fixing the EU executive branch, rather than its legislative one. And, as comparative experience shows, the best strategy is to establish a unitary executive office, directly elected by the people, which can act as a strong integrationist force against intergovernmental pulls. Since establishing transnational lists would de facto require a procedure analogous to a treaty amendment (unanimous European Council approval, EP consent, and ratification by the states), why not focus on more ambitious, and transformational, governance changes? 

Danuta Hübner (MEP, European People’s Party, formerly European Commissioner and Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs).

What is needed now, in light of citizens voicing their views on the future of Europe, is the recalibration of our thinking about democracy. It is true that Europe is a representative democracy. But we can see that relying exclusively on representative democracy has not filled the gaps in what we call the democratic deficit. This deficit is most visible at the nexus where people’s expectations and the existing practices of European institutions meet.

Representative democracy in the European context needs to be – and can be – strengthened through the direct involvement of citizens, through the stronger attachment of citizens to Europe, and through their feeling of ownership of the Union.  It can only be strengthened by deliberative agora-esque democracy that the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is a prime example of now.

Deliberative democracy should be seen as feeding the ideas and adding to the credibility of the democratic process, and not as a threat, as some politicians who are used to the old ways tend to think. Deliberative democracy is not a competitor, but a friend of representative democracy. It may be said that, if representative democracy is the text, deliberative democracy is the music that sets the tone and the ambience.

In one of the most essential recommendations that came from the Citizens’ Panels, it is stated unequivocally that the Citizens’ Assemblies should become a structural part of the Union. We need to read this text very carefully, for every word has its weight here:

“We recommend that the European Union holds Citizens’ Assemblies. We strongly recommend that they are developed through a legally binding and compulsory law or regulation. The Citizens’ Assemblies should be held every 12-18 months… The EU must ensure the commitment of politicians to citizens’ decisions taken in Citizens’ assemblies. In case citizens’ proposals are ignored or explicitly rejected, EU institutions must be accountable… justifying the reasons why this decision was made”.

There is no equivocation here, no double talk, that could be susceptible to various interpretations. The words are very straightforward and very brave. This recommendation, if enacted, has the potential to bring a real change to how the EU will become really not only citizen-oriented, but citizen-directed and citizen-owned.

I think that, in general, the Citizens Panels output thus far supports the observation of Alberto Alemanno that “The Conference on the Future of Europe marks the first explicit admission that citizens – not the Member States or the EU institutions – are the EU’s ultimate source of authority and legitimacy.” The Conference, and especially the panels, have awakened a dormant potential among the people – the appetite to really have a say on the crucial issues in European affairs.

And it is quite obvious that the more the citizens taste the power of their engagement during Citizen Panels, the more involvement they want.

And CoFoE – which we may not fully appreciate yet – is a certain “rite of passage” to a new form of the EU. We should draw appropriate conclusions from this development. Thus, we should not give in to the temptation to discontinue the Conference after it officially ends in the months to come, but rather we should seriously commit ourselves to make the Citizens’ Assembly a permanent mechanism in the structure of EU decision making.

Perhaps it should, at some point, be given a co-equal standing to the European Council? For we can see how easily the Council can become a “being unto itself” – a self-referencing body – with only a tenuous link to representing the interests of citizens. One day it may be seen both as a challenge and an opportunity to make the EU’s leadership closer to real issues that citizens care about.

Jan Rovny (Professor at the Centre d’études européennes and LIEPP at Sciences Po, Paris)

I do not oppose the creation of a small number of Europe-wide transnational lists for European Parliament elections, but in its proposed form it seems like a wrong step in the right direction. 

Why is it a wrong step? The EU’s legitimacy crisis is not a function of the EU’s lack of democratic input. The EU’s democracy is not weaker than that of most national states. EU decisions are proposed by a Commission made up of representatives selected by the European Council and reviewed by the European Parliament. The European Council are elected national leaders, and the European Parliament is directly elected. Draft legislation is then produced by that directly elected parliament and national representatives in the Council. The specificities that make the EU strange and harder to understand – such as the legislative role of national executives in the Council, or comitology committees – stem from national governments’ desire to maintain control in critical places of the EU machinery. Adding another ballot to European elections – one that would allocate seats on EU-wide lists – would add complexity to a process that most Europeans claim they don’t understand at present (albeit mostly because they don’t care to). I doubt it would enhance European electorate’s view of the legitimacy of the institutions, or of the electoral process. If it includes just a small number of seats, it is likely to amount to merely a marginal complication. 

Why is it in the right direction? The core of the legitimacy problem of the EU lies in two aspects related to democratic output. The first is the circuitous translation of European election results into the political agenda of the European Commission. European elections do not determine ‘government’ policy. The second is the inability of the EU to deal effectively with the most pressing problems in Europe within its remit – fiscal policy, migration policy, collective defense (especially of the eastern flanks of the Union) – that remain the prerogative of dissonant national policies. To the extent that the proposal to create European-wide election lists is an attempt to limit the domineering national hold, it pushes in the right direction. 

More important institutional changes should include the formation of the Commission by the party group or groups that control the majority of the European Parliament. This process was attempted through the Spitzenkandidatenprocedure, but was abandoned by national leaders in 2019. This is far more important than Europe-wide ballots as it promises the translation of electoral results into a clearer political mandate and policy agenda of the Commission. Furthermore, the European Union should acquire greater competences to deal with the key issues facing the continent, especially in the areas of fiscal coordination, migration management, and defense. Given the nationalist sentiment across Europe and the world, such more direct and effective changes are currently politically untenable.  

Concept: Laszlo Bruszt, Michal Matlak

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Karen Culver

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