Dienstag, 16. November 2021

European lists with national quotas? The political groups’ proposals for EU electoral reform

EU flag with the letters VOTE
The debate on EU-wide lists is picking up steam. But not all groups in the European Parliament agree on what that actually means.

The European electoral reform is taking shape in the European Parliament. After the responsible rapporteur Domènec Ruiz Devesa (PSOE/PES) presented his draft at the beginning of July, the other members in the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) had until the beginning of November to submit amendments. They are now being negotiated and a Committee vote is scheduled as early as 9 December. A plenary decision is planned for March 2022. After that, the Council will have to deal with the reform.

The most important and controversial issue in these negotiations are, of course, the EU-wide (“transnational”) lists. While some MEPs – especially among Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens – expect them to be an important breakthrough for stronger European parties and a transnational public sphere, others – especially the European People’s Party (EPP) and the right-wing groups – have repeatedly blocked the proposal in the past. Also national governments are divided between supporters, such as France, Italy, and Spain, and sceptics, including mainly smaller member states. (To read why I myself think that EU-wide lists are currently the most important lever for a more democratic EU, please click here).

Safeguards for the small member states

For the proponents of European lists, the new reform attempt should therefore also serve to overcome reservations and build bridges. The focus is particularly on smaller member states which fear that EU-wide lists would, de facto, mainly benefit the larger ones. Since most EU citizens live in large member states, it is expected that European parties would give the most promising seats on EU-wide lists mainly to candidates from larger countries.

To counteract this, the Devesa draft includes a quota system to ensure that larger, medium and smaller countries are represented in a balanced way on the European lists. However, this model has not convinced all MEPs: both the Greens/EFA group and the liberal RE group have submitted their own proposals with different quota systems. Moreover, there is another alternative proposal from the French-Italian RE MEP Sandro Gozi (IV/EDP), who is also the President of the Union of European Federalists.

Finally, the EPP has presented a model entirely of its own, which, while echoing the terminology of EU-wide lists, would work completely different in practice. This article will examine the different proposals in detail and compare them with each other.

The Devesa draft

According to the original draft by Social Democrat Ruiz Devesa, there would be a new EU-wide constituency through which 46 seats would be allocated – in addition to the existing national seat contingents, which would remain unchanged. The total size of the European Parliament would thus grow from currently 705 to 751 seats.

For these 46 new seats, European parties (or ad hoc “European electoral coalitions” that would not have to be recognized as European parties) would draw up lists of 46 candidates each. These lists would be closed; that is, there would be a fixed order of candidates on each list which voters could not change by preferential voting.

To this order, two quota rules would apply: First, all candidates up to the 14th place (the rounded-up half of the number of member states) would have to come from different member states (defined by their country of residence rather than citizenship). Second, the member states would be divided into five groups (of three times five and two times six countries), according to their population size. The list would then have to include one candidate from each of the five country groups in each block of five (places 1-5, places 6-10, etc.).

What this means effectively

If this proposal was implemented, the European parties would have to place candidates from at least 14 different countries on their list. Since with 46 EU-wide seats, even the largest European parties could count on a maximum of about 12-15 MEPs, these would all be from different member states. Apart from substitutes, no country would have two “EU-wide” deputies from the same party. In addition, the five country groups would ensure a mix of large, medium-sized and small countries among the elected deputies. In particular, each party would have a maximum of three elected EU-wide deputies from large countries.

At the same time, the proposal offers no guarantees for any individual country. In principle, it is conceivable that the candidates from a particular member state would only be placed in hopeless positions at the bottom of the lists – or even that there might be no candidate from a certain country on any list at all. Conversely, in the overall result, a single country could be strongly overrepresented in relation to its population. Theoretically, one Estonian candidate could be elected on every EU-wide list, but not a single Slovenian candidate. In practice, however, this would be rather unlikely.

In reality, who would probably lose out are national parties that are weaker in their country than their counterparts in another country of similar size. For example, given the limited number of viable list positions for candidates from large countries, the EPP would probably be more likely to field candidates from the German CDU/CSU, the Polish PO and the Spanish PP than from the smaller French LR or Italian FI. Among the Social Democrats, the German SPD, the Italian PD or the Spanish PSOE might have better chances to be on the EU-wide list than the French PS or the Polish SLD.

The Gozi proposal

Sandro Gozi’s proposal is essentially a simplification of the Devesa draft. It assumes the rule that no country of origin may appear twice up to the 14th place on the list. However, in Gozi’s proposal, member states would only be divided in three groups (of ninecountries each) rather than five; accordingly, the lists would have to include one large, one medium, and one small country in each block of three (places 1-3, places 4-6, etc.).

A new addition by Gozi is a rule that among the 46 candidates on each list, at least one person must be from each member state.

What this means effectively

The fact that there must be at least one candidate from each country on each list is unlikely to have much effect on the composition of the European Parliament itself. After all, the last 30 to 40 places on each list would not have a real chance of being elected anyway, so the candidates might at best enter the European Parliament as substitutes if other MEPs on the list resign their seats.

However, the additional criterion would make it more difficult for smaller parties to draw up a valid list. Only the largest European parties, such as EPP and PES, are actually present in all member states. For the medium-sized parties like the Greens and the Left, this obstacle should still be fairly easy to overcome, since they would, after all, only have to persuade some individual candidates to stand on their list in the countries where they are not represented. For small parties like the European Free Alliance (EFA) or the European Democratic Party (EDP) and for newcomers like Volt or DiEM25, however, the 27-states criterion would be a major organizational challenge.

Apart from that, by switching from groups of five to groups of three the Gozi draft gives European parties a bit more flexibility. The largest parties could now include candidates from four to five large countries on their lists. However, since the first 14 seats would have to be filled by candidates from different countries, it would still be effectively impossible for two EU-wide MEPs from the same party to come from the same country.

The Greens/EFA proposal

For the Greens/EFA group, Damian Boeselager – who is currently the only MEP from the small pan-European party Volt – has proposed an amendment that would further simplify the Devesa model. In particular, it gives up both the requirement that no country of origin may be repeated up to position 14 and the division of countries into groups.

Instead, the Greens/EFA propose to have only one quota rule, namely that every block of seven (places 1-7, 8-14 etc.) on any list must consist of candidates from seven different countries.

What this means effectively

The Greens/EFA proposal gives European parties the greatest freedom to decide over the composition of their list. Since grouping by country size is eliminated, in theory all EU-wide MEPs could come from large member states. The blocks of seven do prevent all candidates from residing in the same three or four countries. But parties would probably ensure this minimum of national diversity on their own initiative and without institutional requirements anyway.

Since in this model the countries of origin can be repeated from list position 8, it is possible that more than one EU-wide deputy from the same country and party would enter the European Parliament, at least in the case of the larger European parties.

The proposal of the Verhofstadt group

Another proposal, put forward by a group of RE MEPs led by shadow rapporteur and former group president Guy Verhofstadt (Open-VLD/ALDE), deviates somewhat more from the Devesa model. Like the Greens/EFA proposal, it omits the requirement that no country may repeat up to the 14th place as well as the division into country groups. On the other hand, Verhofstadt adopts Sandro Gozi’s approach that each list must include at least one candidate from each country.

The key feature of the Verhofstadt model, however, is another criterion: across all lists, among the 46 elected deputies, each country of origin must be represented by a minimum of one and a maximum of six deputies. To this end, Verhofstadt is taking advantage of the circumstance that according to the D’Hondt procedure seats are allocated in a specific order. It is therefore possible to say which European list is entitled to the “first” EU-wide seat, which one is entitled to the “second”, etc.

If, according to this ranking, six seats would already have gone to candidates from the same country, then further candidates from this country could no longer receive a seat. Instead, they would simply be skipped within their respective party list and the seat would go to the candidate on the next list position (if this candidate is from another country).

The reverse would also apply: if at the end of the allocation procedure a country had not yet received any representatives, the list candidate from this country would automatically be selected for the “last” (46th) EU-wide seat – regardless of their list position. (If several countries were still missing in the end, this principle could also be applied for several seats. In this case, the “last” seat would go to the smallest country still missing, the “second to last” to the second smallest, etc.) Since all lists would have to include candidates from all countries, it would be ensured that there would be at least one candidate from the missing country on each list. As a result, there would be at least one person from each member state among all 46 elected MEPs.

What this means effectively

By requiring list candidates from all member states, the Verhofstadt model poses similar problems for small and newcomer parties as the Gozi proposal. Apart from that, however, it gives the European parties a great deal of freedom in drawing up their lists. In theory, several candidates from the same country could be at the top positions of the same list.

At the same time, the Verhofstadt model (unlike the other three proposals) indeed guarantees that each country is represented with at least one of the 46 new seats. However, in the case of a country whose candidates from all parties are only at the bottom of the lists, it would be largely random to which party this seat goes, since it is not possible to anticipate which list will take the “last” EU-wide seat. As a result, the seat might also go to a candidate whose party does not actually play any role in the respective country – for example, a Maltese right-wing extremist or a Latvian Green.

In addition, the maximum criterion (no more than six representatives per country) is potentially problematic for the smaller European parties, which do not get a chance to participate in the D’Hondt allocation until quite late in the procedure. Theoretically, it is conceivable that all six seats of a country are already allocated at this point, so that the smaller party’s lead candidate does not enter the European Parliament through the EU-wide list. However, this risk would take effect only if the lists of the larger parties all had several candidates from the same country running on the top positions. In practice, this is unlikely to happen since the parties would probably rather want to present their national diversity on the lists.

The EPP proposal

Finally, Sven Simon (CDU/EPP) has proposed a completely different system on behalf of the European People’s Party. In this proposal, the EPP adopts some of the terminology of the Devesa draft; for example, it speaks of an “EU-wide constituency” for which the European parties are to draw up “lists”. In fact, however, it completely redefines these terms, so that its model has little to do with European lists as discussed by the other parties.

This begins with the fact that the EPP does not want to create anadditional EU-wide seat contingent. The new procedure would apply to 27 seats – one per member state – but they would not be added to the current national contingents. Rather, each of the current national contingents would be reduced by one seat, which would instead become part of the new system. In total, there would still be only 705 MEPs.

Moreover, the 27 “EU-wide” seats would also not be allocated through a pan-European election. Rather, the election would continue to be held separately for each member state. Thus, in each country exactly one candidate would be elected, applying of a pure relative majority (“first past the post”) system. The European parties would only play a role insofar as each of them would only be allowed to nominate one candidate per country. National parties belonging to the same European party (such as the liberal VVD and D66 in the Netherlands or RE and KE in Estonia) would therefore have to present a common candidate.

In addition, the name of the European leading candidate (Spitzenkandidat) of the respective European party would appear on the ballot paper alongside the name of the national candidate. The voter would thus simultaneously vote for a national candidate and a European lead candidate of the same party. After the election, all votes for the leading candidates would be added up – this would indeed be the only respect in which there would be an “EU-wide constituency”.

However, the result of this leading-candidate election would not have any concrete effects: the leading candidate with the most votes would not automatically become Commission President and would not even win a seat in the European Parliament. She or he would merely be the first to have the chance to seek a majority in the European Parliament in order to be elected Commission President. If she or he does not succeed because the other parties refuse, everything would remain the same for the leading candidate procedure.

What this means effectively

The EPP proposal is, undeniably, an original contribution – but it is hard to say whether it is really meant seriously or whether it is rather intended to create confusion in the debate about EU-wide lists. In fact, it is not at all about an “EU-wide constituency” or “European lists”, but about a single-member majority election in national constituencies.

This would eliminate many of the advantages that supporters of EU-wide lists envision for European democracy. European elections would remain primarily a national affair and European parties would continue to have no significant role in candidate selection. At least, according to the EPP draft, the leading candidates would appear on the ballot in the future. This is apparently intended as a response to a frequently levelled criticism against the current leading candidate system, namely that it is not actually possible to vote for the leading candidates in all member states. However, even according to the EPP draft, the election of leading candidates would have no practical, but only symbolic relevance. The leading candidates would be on the ballot paper, but they would not be elected into any office.

Thus, the EPP proposal would lead voters to believe that they directly elect the Commission President, while in reality they would only elect a national MEP. It seems more than doubtful whether this democratic bluff would be conducive to the credibility of the leading candidate procedure – or, for that matter, of the European Parliament election in general. Most remarkably, the EPP itself explicitly criticizes misleading ballot papers in another amendment to the Devesa draft. It wants to insert a new point 19a into the resolution, with which the European Parliament would stress “that ballot papers containing the list of candidates for the elections to the European Parliament must not under any circumstances be misleading or deceptive as to the candidate actually voted for”.

Key question for the negotiations: How serious is the EPP?

What interest does the EPP pursue with its idiosyncratic proposal? It does not seem to be a question of pure gerrymandering: according to the current polls, the EPP would probably win the seat in about a quarter to a third of the member states in a one-person majority election. That is only slightly more than it would achieve in a Europe-wide proportional election with genuine EU-wide lists.

What seems more plausible isthat the party has recognized that the debate on EU-wide lists has gained momentum and that it is no longer sufficient to retreat to a simple blocking position as they did in the past. With the present proposal, the EPP makes a contribution that looks constructive at first glance – and yet draws a deep rift in relation to the other parties. While it will be easy to find compromises between the proposals of Ruiz Devesa, Gozi, the Verhofstadt group and the Greens/EFA, the EPP model offers hardly any connecting points. How serious the party really is about opening up to “EU-wide lists” will probably only be revealed by the negotiations that are now pending in the Committee on Constitutional Affairs.


So far, there is no transnsational electoral equality for European Parliament elections. A proportional compensation system through transnational lists might change that. In a recent policy paper, I have analysed how such a system could work.

Translation from German: Julina Mintel.
Image: EU flag with letters VOTE: Marco Verch [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr (original here).

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