On the Doorstep of EU Electoral Reform 

4 mins read

In the spring of 2022, the European Parliament voted in favour of a proposal to massively change EU elections by making 27 national elections into one. This reform, if implemented, could be a watershed moment for European democracy. And yet very few are aware of it. 

The proposal consists of many reforms but in this text, the most interesting and consequential will be discussed: Giving citizens a second vote for EU-wide transnational representatives in the European Parliament and formalizing the lead candidate process. 

These reforms are meant to reduce the often criticised democratic deficit within the EU by tackling three issues: 

1. Perceived remoteness. For decades, we have been governed by the rules and regulations of the union but these decisions are commonly seen as taken by Brussels’ bureaucrats without regard for the affected. This is partially explained by a general lack of awareness of the European decision-making process, due to low coverage. 

2. The concentration of power. The member states’ governments and the Commission hold nearly all power within the EU. While the only institution directly chosen by the electorate, Parliament, is largely only a rubber stamp. 

3. The selection of commissioners. Officials of the European Commission – the governing cabinet of the EU – are picked through closed-door deals between the member states’ governments, with no consultation of the electorate. Arguably one of the key reasons why the EU is often considered a remote and bureaucratic institution, as we voters have no say in who’ll hold the most powerful offices. 

With these factors in mind, the general distrust and disinterest that threatens the existence of the EU aren’t surprising. If the European project is to really work for its peoples and win their trust, democratic reforms are urgently needed. 

This is where the proposal for transnational voting comes in: 

It would mean that all EU citizens have two votes in future elections. The vast majority of seats would be allocated exactly as previously; where voters’ first preferences are used to elect the parties and people that represent their country in the European Parliament. 

The second vote, under this system, would allow everyone across Europe to vote for the same set of transnational candidates. These 28 mandates won’t be representing a specific country, but rather all citizens of the EU. This seems like a trivial change, but it could transform European campaigning and the entire view of the elections. 

Today, European elections are largely seen as national affairs in the eyes of voters and parties. The questions that dominate debates depend entirely on the country, and parties usually tout the issues that profile them in national politics with no vision of the EU’s role. This leads to the ironic situation of many campaign promises not even being within the powers of the European Parliament!

With transnational voting, we might start to see a Europeanisation of the elections: As national parties won’t be able to contend across the union, international movements or the groups of parties within Parliament will be the ones running for these seats. The campaigns will therefore inevitably be pan-European: addressing problems of all member states with solutions conceived from a European outlook. 

This will hopefully lead to both a more constructive debate ahead of elections as well as bringing voters’ attention to the actual work of Parliament and its concrete achievements. National politics will still play a large role, but the European perspective should start to bleed into local discourse, as national parties will have to take a stance on proposals from transnational campaigns too. 

Implementing the second vote will also allow so-called lead candidates to present themselves before voters. In short, each party group will select a candidate who contends for the presidency of the European Commission. The group receiving the most votes across the union thus have a mandate from voters to nominate their candidate as president, just as forming a government works in most parliamentary democracies. 

Should the candidates, instead of the current concealed process, be presented for and campaign to the public, who then have the final say in who governs, the EU will be a far more democratic institution. Voters will finally directly impact the highest offices of the union and the key figures of the EU may not seem as distant. 

So, can you expect to cast two ballots in the next European election? Unfortunately, that’s not certain. On October 18th the member states discussed the proposal, splitting into three roughly equal camps for, against and neutral. With those against opposing power being reallocated from the state’s governments to Parliament on principle, in essence, they want to keep the distance that currently exists between voters and EU institutions. 

This opposition means the proposal will face an uphill battle, but the parliamentary officials contacted for this piece are hopeful that the core will still pass. It also risks being overshadowed and forgotten as Europe seems to be heading towards yet another crisis this winter. Therefore, Sweden may have an important role in passing or condemning the reforms. Next year Sweden will take over the Council presidency, taking charge of the member states’ agenda for six months. To see the needed EU election reforms, this issue must be given enough time and priority for compromise to be reached. That will only happen if the public shows an interest in this proposal, which so far, has gone largely unnoticed. 

In conclusion, transnational voting and the lead candidate system could be a vital step in reducing the EU’s democratic deficit. European political campaigns will be more relevant and coherent across borders, increasing general awareness of European issues and allowing voters to have a direct say in the election of the Commission President. But unless we citizens engage, this proposal may yet die in committee.

Image source: Tabrez Syed

Carl Sjölin Fagerlind studies German at Uppsala University. He spends most of his free time rewatching sitcoms, playing curling or studying an eclectic cocktail of languages, history, philosophy and politics. Going down Wikipedia rabbit holes on any trivial topic catching his interest has claimed many hours of his life.

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