01 August 2023

Genuine European elections do not exist now – but could they in the future?

By Wouter Wolfs
Orchestra pit
From a procedural point of view, European elections can only be seen as a mere sum of national elections.

Elections are the cornerstone of any democracy – this is true at the national level, but also at the level of the European Union. The elections to the European Parliament can fall back on a long process of development. Despite regular efforts to improve them, the regulatory framework is still riddled with hurdles and thresholds that prevent these elections from becoming the real highlight of European democracy.

An old aspiration

The idea of genuine European elections is as old as the project of European integration itself. Members of the European Parliament’s predecessor – the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – called for the introduction of direct universal suffrage already in the early 1950s. These calls were regularly repeated in the 1960s and 1970s (Pittoors 2023), but it was not until 1979 that the European Parliament was directly elected for the first time by the citizens of the then nine member states. Since then, citizens across Europe have elected their European representatives every five years. In 2024, these elections will be held for the tenth time, marking almost half a century of representative democracy in the EU.

But while the first elections in 1979 took place in an atmosphere of optimism and idealism, the enthusiasm gradually waned in the following decades. European elections are no longer seen as a panacea for the EU’s democratic deficit. Often referred to as second-order (national) elections, they have been plagued by declining turnout: while 62 per cent of the electorate voted in the first elections, this dropped to 43 per cent in 2014. Only the 2019 elections saw a notable increase to 51 per cent. While this can partly be explained by lower voter turnout in the member states that have joined in the last two decades, it can also be argued that the way these elections are regulated and organized severely limits their democratic potential.

Electoral organisation: a sum of 27 national elections

The regulatory framework for European elections consists of a (limited) number of common principles defined at EU level, leaving a large degree of organisational discretion to the member states. The basic framework is set out in the 1976 Act, as amended in 2002 and 2018 (although the latter reform has not yet entered into force). It includes the obligation to hold elections by direct universal suffrage and to use some form of proportional representation – a sensitive issue in countries with a majoritarian system, such as the UK or France.

However, most of the other aspects of the organisation and management of European elections are regulated at national level, which has led to a plethora of different rules in the various member states. They have made different choices about whether or not to divide their territory into smaller electoral districts (without jeopardizing the proportional nature of the elections), on whether to use open or closed lists, on the minimum age of candidates, on the modalities for voting from abroad, and even on the exact day on which the elections are held. Member states also have different official electoral periods, thresholds for party income and campaign spending, and rules on third party and/or social media campaigning. The main implication of the current arrangement is that the electoral infrastructure is not European but mostly national. In other words, from a procedural point of view, European elections can only be seen as a mere sum of national elections.

A flawed democratic mandate

These procedural rules are more than just a technical issue and have substantive implications for the issues that at stake in the European elections. The electoral framework puts the national political parties in the driver’s seat and forces EU-level political parties to play second fiddle.

These European political parties have been around for almost half a century, having been specifically created in the run-up to the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979 (Bressanelli 2023). Participation in European elections is at the core of their raison d’être, and is even a formal requirement to be officially registered with the European Parliament and to receive public funding from the EU budget.

Both scholars and policymakers have argued that a stronger role for these Europarties could contribute to a “Europeanization” of the elections and thus to the democratization of the European Union as a whole. If the European elections revolve around political issues that are predominantly national, there is no public deliberation about the direction and desired policies that need to be pursued at the European level.

The implication is a flawed democratic mandate for the Members of the European Parliament: they are elected on the basis of national political issues – and possibly even national competences – to decide on European political issues. At best – in the case of a far-reaching Europeanization of national debates ahead of the ballot – the European elections might generate a European debate, but still from a national perspective, through a national “lens”. In other words, the dominant point of reference remains the national democratic sphere, and not an overarching European sphere.

Incentives to adopt a national perspective

This dynamic creates an incentive structure for MEPs to look at issues primarily from a national interest perspective rather than from an overarching EU interest perspective. This is because their political survival is decided nationally: they have to be (re)elected by a national electorate on national electoral lists drawn up by national political parties. This leads to an institutional imbalance in the EU: national interests are supposed to be defended by the representatives of the member states in the Council of Ministers, while the MEPs are supposed to defend the various ideological tendencies that exist among EU citizens with regard to European policy.

A stronger role for European political parties can alleviate this problem. These Europarties develop political programmes that set out specific EU policy initiatives based on their ideological principles. In other words, they present a political agenda for the EU as a whole, which can be inspired but not determined or biased by national interests. As such, Europarties have the ability to take public debate and deliberation beyond national borders and to foster the development of a transnational European public sphere.

Europarties’  limited influence on the selection of candidates

However, the regulatory framework severely limits the role that Europarties can play in the European elections and complicates their ability to run truly transnational campaigns across national borders. A first major problem is that European political parties have no influence on the selection of candidates: as mentioned above, the electoral lists are drawn up by the national political parties, leading to national dependencies.

Several institutional reforms have been proposed to mitigate this situation. The most radical idea is the introduction of a pan-European electoral district: a number of seats in the European Parliament would be contested throughout the entire territory of the EU. Europarties would present transnational lists of candidates from across Europe, and all citizens across the continent would be able to vote for the same range of candidates. This would significantly strengthen the role of the Europarties: they would be responsible for selecting candidates and running transnational election campaigns.

The lead-candidates innovation

A second, less far-reaching innovation is the so-called lead-candidates or “Spitzenkandidaten” system, which has been applied since 2014. The idea is that each Europarty nominates its candidate for the presidency of the European Commission before the European elections. These candidates then act as political figureheads in the election campaigns, promoting the political programme of the Europarty and giving it a “face”. In this respect, a vote for a national member party would be seen as a sign of support for the lead candidate of the Europarty.

This is analogous to the situation in most member states, where the leaders of the main political parties compete for the post of prime minister, but often stand for election only in one electoral district, which is only a small part of the country’s entire territory. Just as Germans’ vote for the SPD in the 2021 national elections was also an indirect sign of support for Olaf Scholz’s candidacy for chancellor (even outside his electoral district of Potsdam), a vote for the SPD in the 2019 European elections would be seen as a sign of support for the Party of the European Socialists’ lead candidate, Frans Timmermans, to head the European Commission.

But while the lead-candidates system was successful in 2014, when the EPP emerged as the largest political force after the elections and its Spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker became Commission President, this was not the case in 2019: not one of the lead candidates, but Ursula von der Leyen – who had not even participated in the elections – was placed at the helm of the EU executive.

Europarties’ limited public visibility

While the Spitzenkandidaten idea is clear in principle, there are several practical and technical issues that further complicate its implementation. An important condition for the system to work is that voters are aware of the link between national parties and (the lead candidates of) their Europarties. At present, the vast majority of citizens are unaware of this link.

For example, only in a handful of countries the names and/or logos of the Europarties are mentioned on the ballot paper. Similarly, national parties rarely mention their European affiliation in their campaign material and electoral communications, or even on their websites (although this is compulsory) (EDC 2021; Auel & Tiemann 2020, 74-80). In other words, at the national level, the amount of “access” and attention given to Europarties is relatively limited.

Few financial resources, many spending restrictions

Other aspects of the legal framework for European elections also create significant barriers for Europarties to increase their visibility. Firstly, although Europarties receive significant amounts of public funding (Wolfs 2022, 53-70), these financial resources are still quite limited for running a continent-wide campaign. In 2019, the EPP’s campaign spending amounted to €5.68 million, more than twice as much as the PES (€2.35 million) and the EGP (€2.24 million). The other Europarties spent only a small fraction of these amounts. By comparison, the CDU reported a campaign expenditure of €48.5 million in campaign spending for the 2014 European elections in Germany alone (Schmälter et al. 2019).

Second, although Europarties are obliged to participate in the European elections in order to be eligible for EU funding, they are at the same time not allowed to use these financial resources to directly or indirectly support national parties and candidates, especially during election periods. This complicates certain initiatives they can take – such as providing training  to candidates – but is particularly problematic with regard to the Spitzenkandidaten system: the ban on (in)direct support to candidates means that Europarties cannot finance any campaign activities for their lead candidate in the member state where (s)he is on the ballot. For example, during the 2019 European elections, the PES was not allowed to pay for any campaign events for Martin Schulz in Germany, where he was a candidate. This creates the strange situation that it may be more advantageous for a Europarty if its Spitzenkandidat is not standing for election: the ALDE party, for example, was able to fund campaign activities of Margrethe Vestager in Denmark because she was not standing as an official candidate in the European elections.

Finally, Europarties’ campaign efforts are further complicated by a plethora of other obstacles: in addition to European rules, Europarties’ activities also have to comply with the national campaign rules of each member state, which can vary considerably. Some countries impose a strict campaign period and a specific spending threshold or ceiling for certain income categories, while others do not. Similarly, digital campaign expenses or “third party” campaigning are regulated in some countries and not in others. The latter element can be particularly problematic if Europarties themselves are considered as “third parties”, significantly limiting their ability to campaign. Furthermore, the interaction between the national and European levels in these elections poses new challenges for monitoring agencies and requires extensive collaboration to ensure proper oversight and enforcement.

The new electoral law as a game changer?

Mitigating these problems has been an important issue for (some Members of) the European Parliament in recent years. They have regularly pushed for a revision of the European electoral system in general and the introduction of a pan-European district in particular (see, for example, Díaz Crego 2022). However, the appetite of the member states for far-reaching revisions has been minimal.

The last reform of the European electoral law dates back to 2018 and was relatively modest in scope. It only requires member states to set an electoral threshold between 2 and 5 per cent for constituencies with more than 35 seats, and introduces a deadline for parties to submit lists of candidates at least three weeks before the election date. In addition, not all member states have ratified the changes, so the new rules are not yet in force.

A new push by the European Parliament

This has not stopped the European Parliament from preparing a new revision of European electoral law. The proposed reforms include a new push for greater harmonization of the rules. MEPs are proposing a common age of 18 to stand as a candidate and a minimum voting age of 16, harmonization of the rules on voting abroad (including the obligation to allow postal voting), measures to improve the accessibility of voting facilities and a single polling day for all EU countries.

The proposal also includes the creation of an EU-wide constituency in which 28 MEPs would be elected through a closed list system. These transnational lists could be submitted by Europarties, but also by newly created European movements or coalitions of parties. In order to promote geographical balance, the candidates on the lists must be mixed according to population size. This is to ensure that citizens from small and medium-sized member states also have a chance to win a seat in the EU-wide constituency. Moreover, in order to facilitate “transnational” monitoring of the European elections, a new European Electoral Authority would be established to coordinate and exchange information between the national electoral authorities of the 27 member states.

However, the member states are at best lukewarm about meeting even some of the European Parliament’s demands, and negotiations on the new reform remain blocked.

Member states retain control

In conclusion, the current organization of the European elections falls short of expectations. The introduction and reform of the European elections has always been an important issue for the European Parliament, in an attempt to strengthen representative democracy at European level (and thus its own legitimacy).

Conversely, the member states have been rather reluctant to allow for many substantial changes to the way the elections are conducted and have retained control over the actual conduct of the elections. As a result, the electoral infrastructure is insufficient to fully live up to the democratic potential of the EU, and although there is no lack of proposals to improve the situation, it seems unlikely that any meaningful reform will be successful in the foreseeable future.

Wouter Wolfs is Lecturer at the Public Governance Institute of the University of Leuven and Senior Researcher of the Research Foundation Flanders.

This contribution is part of the thematic forum “Supranational governance between diplomacy and democracy – current debates on EU reform”, published in cooperation with the online magazine Regierungsforschung.de.

Pictures: Abacus: Marco Verch [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr [original photo here]; portrait Wouter Wolfs: Joanna Scheffel [all rights reserved]; EU flag: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen

Kommentare sind hier herzlich willkommen und werden nach der Sichtung freigeschaltet. Auch wenn anonyme Kommentare technisch möglich sind, ist es für eine offene Diskussion hilfreich, wenn Sie Ihre Beiträge mit Ihrem Namen kennzeichnen. Um einen interessanten Gedankenaustausch zu ermöglichen, sollten sich Kommentare außerdem unmittelbar auf den Artikel beziehen und möglichst auf dessen Argumentation eingehen. Bitte haben Sie Verständnis, dass Meinungsäußerungen ohne einen klaren inhaltlichen Bezug zum Artikel hier in der Regel nicht veröffentlicht werden.