Updated: Mar 7, 2019
The European Parliament should be elected on transnational lists
Miriam Ronzoni argues that European citizens feel increasingly alienated from European politics. This is a crucial root cause of both the generally increasing level of Euroscepticism and the rise of populist politics. Transnational lists would strongly help in that respect. The only way out of populism is to allow European citizens to engage politically with one another across borders.
Advocating a reform of the European Parliament might strike some as being completely beside the point - and regardless of what “the point” is! Surely we have all given up on the European Parliament by now? First, most would say, it is nothing but a talking shop. Second, the real action in terms of European politics takes place within other EU institutions, such as the Council or Commission, or is unofficially thrashed out between various major players, such as Paris and Berlin. Third, the last European elections, which saw Eurosceptical parties steadily on the rise, indicate that European citizens want, if anything, more democratic freedom from the EU, not within it. From widespread opposition to the Troika’s handling of the sovereign debt crisis to Brexit, there is little to suggest that Europeans are craving “more Europe”.
Yet, the only way to effectively counter a crisis of democracy is more democracy. Changing the way in which European citizens are represented in the European Parliament may well help to alleviate the Euroscepticism that seems to make discussions of EU institutional reform entirely futile. I suggest, in particular, that we should stop electing members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on national lists. Instead, we should enable European citizens to form transnational lists on the basis of shared interests and beliefs on European matters regardless of nationality.
European citizens feel alienated by European institutions So, what exactly is the problem that such a reform would fix? On the face of it, there is a broad issue of political disempowerment and subsequent disaffection. Looking deeper, there is a more specific, principled reason for advocating a differently elected European Parliament. It is engaged with constitutional essentials and asks what exactly must be democratically represented in the European Parliament given its role within the Union. Both problems, I believe, are more connected than one might think.
European citizens feel increasingly alienated from European politics and, indeed, democratic politics more generally, even at the domestic level. The feeling that it is impossible for ordinary citizens to really make an impact, to be genuinely represented, to hold elites to account is commonplace. Both domestic and international (EU and global) institutions are perceived as betraying their democratic mandate of representation and accountability. What is more, domestic democratic institutions are perceived as being hollowed out by supranational dynamics and institutions themselves.
The hands of national democracies are seen as being tied by the demands of global markets and processes. The supranational institutions set up to manage and mitigate these processes are seen to be serving and channeling those very demands rather than the democratic and humanitarian aims they ostensibly champion. As a result, it is argued, the governments of democratic countries increasingly try to be “good citizens” within this global framework, while merely paying lip service to the will of their people.
As Peter Mair has argued, being a “responsible” government is seen as more important than, and in tension with, being a “representative” one. The responsibility to be honoured is, crucially, that of accommodating global pressures, not that of executing a democratic mandate. Governments obsess over the question “What will the markets think of this?”, and supranational institutions, such as the EU, are largely in the business of enforcing this style of policymaking. The response to the European sovereign debt crisis, which failed to put the interests of affected EU citizens first, has only exacerbated this common grudge. As Colin Crouch would put it, we live in a “post-democracy” in which democratic institutions are all still in place, but real political action has moved elsewhere. So, in a nutshell, citizens feel democratically disempowered and see supranational institutions – and chiefly the EU – as the main culprit for that. This sentiment is arguably fueling the rise of both Euroscepticism and populists within every EU member state.
The European Parliament is meant to represent European citizens Underneath this problem of image or perception lies a more technical and principled one. If the European Parliament – as is clearly stated in the treaties of Rome and Maastricht, which form the EU’s constitutional basis – is meant to represent European citizens - as opposed to member states represented in the European Council - then its electoral make-up should enable European citizens to seek representation for interests and beliefs that they share with other European citizens across borders and regardless of nationality.
The European parliament should be the forum in which different political visions (whose support may well cut across borders), not different national interests, engage in deliberation and competition. Currently, however, it is elected under a problematic hybrid system of national and transnational representation. EU citizens do not merely send a delegation of national MPs to the European Parliament, as has been suggested by authors (e.g. Thomas Piketty) in the past and is championed by Richard Bellamy in this volume. Instead, they elect MEPs who are meant to represent them qua European citizens at the European level. MEPs structure themselves along European parties and parliamentary groups once elected. This element was strengthened for the current parliament when, for the first time, each campaigning European party nominated a candidate to be president of the Commission, and the final parliamentary majority nominated the president. The hope is to create a stronger sense of trans-border alliances during the campaign as well as to give the campaign itself a more pan-European dimension. Yet, each member state still elects its own “national” MEPs along national constituencies and through national lists that largely replicate the party-political spectrum of a given member state at a given time. European parties themselves, as a result, are little more than the sum of MEPs of ideologically similarly aligned national lists. They form parliamentary groups, but are not political parties of European breadth through and through – far from it.
This hybrid nature fails to take European citizenship seriously. If the European Parliament is to represent European citizens, it should represent different visions of Europe shared across the European public space and regardless of national borders. I may share a certain vision of Europe with several Danes, Greeks, and Germans. If the electoral system allowed it, we could form a transnational list that advocates our vision and campaigns for it across borders.
“Vision” in this sense does not presuppose a rosy picture of politics that contrasts national “interests” with transnational “ideals”. The shared view I may have with my fellow EU citizens of other member states may very well be realist and interest-based. We may have a shared idea of what is in the best interest of EU member states, but fail to get it across in each of our domestic constituencies. Or we may have an interest-driven agenda based on a shared identity other than nationality. We may, for instance, believe that cross-border class interest must be fostered at the EU level, and that national parties are not responding to it.
Thus, we may want to exercise political pressure together with citizens of other EU member states who belong to our social class or group. In the present electoral set-up, this is not possible. As a consequence, European elections are poorly followed and attended, and often provoke protest votes on domestic issues rather than cross-country debates on EU-wide issues.
European elections were meant to be an instrument for the creation of a European public sphere in which EU citizens would discuss European matters across borders and in which channels for political debate (parties, the media, civil society organisations) would become mutually enmeshed. It is safe to say that they have largely failed in this respect. Yet, EU citizens are owed an opportunity to seek political representation across borders. If there is such a thing as European citizenship – and Europeans have been told as much for decades now – then it surely entails the right to seek political representation as such rather than as a national citizen.
An antidote to democratic disaffection Reconfiguring the European Parliament in this way could have other positive effects, as well. In particular, it could be a powerful antidote to democratic disaffection. Transnational lists could mobilise citizens around pan-European issues – austerity, eurozone governance, EU solidarity, the distribution of refugees – by creating pan-European alliances made impossible by entrenched political constellations on the domestic level. An EU-wide anti-austerity front might, for instance, face better prospects in terms of gaining traction and momentum. What is more, some issues do not even get on the agenda of European public discourse because citizens who care about them do not find channels to mobilise sufficient interest under the current system of representation. This might change if we had electoral procedures to form alliances with like-minded stakeholders in different member states. It certainly is very much worth trying.
Parliaments and electoral systems are the institutions in which equality, freedom, and fair representation – values defended by democrats – are realised. With respect to the EU, many theoretical discussions have gravitated around the lack of a European people that regards itself as having a common fate, and that therefore has a strong interest in settling disagreements democratically. Encouraging a genuine European political conversation around European elections is one way in which we could contribute to fostering the development of a European people; transnational lists would strongly help in that respect. Many conflicts on European matters cut across national borders, and some salient groups of European citizens might have more in common – and more jointly at stake – with European citizens in other countries of, say, a similar social class than with their national compatriots. Arguably, disregarding these cross-border interests has played a role in the rise of populism; transnational lists could revitalise the idea of European political parties. Citizens are tempted by populism when they do not see the possibility of genuine representation. Opening new channels for effective representation by allowing European citizens to engage politically with one another across borders in a meaningful way might be just what is needed to counter such temptation. The idea has recently re-gained some political traction. Consider, for instance, French President Macron’s positive words about the revival of transnational lists. And it is also strongly advocated by the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM2025), which indeed presents itself as the “first European transnational list”.
Some objections People in the Twelve Stars online debate have objected that the European Parliament is only a talking shop anyway, so why should all of this matter? The European Parliament has over the years evolved to be much less of an empty, powerless forum than many still think. As proof, it suffices to point to the most labour-friendly aspects of the European Work Directive, particularly with respect to limits on maximum working hours: It simply would not be in place without the largely unexpected resistance of MEPs to further labour law liberalisation at the time. Similarly, any Brexit deal will require approval by the European Parliament. Indeed, one may turn the argument around: It is the absence of proper pan-European discussions – due, among other things, to the absence of transnational lists and proper European parties – that may well have prevented citizens from realising the fact that the European Parliament has gained a much stronger role within the institutional architecture of the EU.
Another objection is that while member states (as opposed to European citizens) are indeed already well represented within the EU, such representation runs via governments rather than legislatures – and that the latter, not the former, are the heart of democratic sovereignty. Instead of engaging in the chimerical project of a “truly European” parliament, we should seek to give voice to the national parliaments of member states within Europe, as this is likely to increase the accountability of EU-level decision-making because the accountability link between citizens and national MPs is, after all, still the strongest one. Thus, the democratic accountability of the EU is best strengthened by bringing (members of) national parliaments to Brussels. The idea – proposed in this volume by Richard Bellamy – is to have a European parliamentary chamber. It would be composed of delegations of national MPs from each member state rather than MEPs. According to to its defenders, it would be much better than the current parliament at giving European citizens a meaningful voice. I fully agree – and I also do not believe that this proposal is incompatible with the introduction of transnational lists within the European system. Indeed, a proper two-chamber system – one to represent the European demos across national lines, one to represent the demos of each and every member state via a delegation of MPs – would probably be much better at democracy than the current, hybrid one-chamber system.
Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.