Europa United is delighted to welcome a new contributor to our team – Ágnes Szűcs. Ágnes graduated from International Relations and European Studies in Hungary and Belgium. Since 2010, Ágnes has been working as a freelance journalist for the Hungarian weekly Vasarnapi Hirek and currently leads the Brussels-based NGO Centre for European Progression. In her first piece for Europa United Ágnes casts an eye over the French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for voting reform in the EU.

With the open support of Emmanuel Macron, the time has come to set up a pan-European list for European Parliament (EP) elections. As announced recently, the French President would like to see it happen already during the upcoming elections in 2019. By leaving 73 seats free Brexit also poses a unique opportunity to create a European constituency that would enable citizens to vote for the main political groups’ lists. But even if Macron’s eagerness makes federalist hearts beat faster, details of this highly sensitive question can’t be worked out that quickly.

Unique moment

When the European Union’s democratic legitimacy comes to question, the EP is cited as the only European institution that meets (more or less) the criteria, because the institution’s powers have gradually increased since the first direct elections in 1979 and by now Members of the European Parliament (MEP) are considered as the “representatives of the Union’s citizens”.

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, celebrates on stage after partial results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election in Paris

French President, Emmanuel Macron

Yet, the legal framework is not enough to create democratic legitimacy. European citizens should also perceive the EP as their own institution. Or, at least this is what political science suggests. Because in reality, a decisive majority of European voters still don’t know what the EP does or don’t care about it, as clearly shown by declining turnout at the elections. This apathy can be explained by reasons hard to counteract, like the general loss of interest and trust in politics, the absence of effective EU-wide information campaigns and blame-gaming national politics.

But recently, signs of hope have started to emerge. Polls show that European people’s trust and satisfaction with the EU has grown since Brexit, and that citizens slowly realise that it is better to be in than out. Even if his personal ambitions and interests can’t be detached from his clear pro-European stance, President Macron changes the discourse of national politics when he calls for more Europe. The German election campaign also subscribes to this narrative, because all leading candidates agree that there is a need for further integration. The only question is how far they intend to go.

Brexit also opens a window of opportunity from the technical point of view, because the European list could be set up without any harm to national quotas that Member States defend fiercely. Proposals have been on the table for more than twenty years as a part of the EP’s eternal struggle to gain more importance. It has been imagined as an addition to the existing Member State-based system with seats ranging from 25 seats up to 10 percent of the total number of MEPs; but divisions in the mainstream turned down the efforts. Now, the 73 free seats, or a certain number of them could be converted to a European list, representing at least 14 different nationalities.

Slow to save

President Macron would like to see it happen already in 2019. Undoubtedly, it is a great step forwarsd that one of Europe’s leaders does care about the European electoral system and opens the debate. But there are many obstacles to overcome in order to make it work with such a short deadline. First of all, one should see that he is not the altruistic saviour of Europe. He has indeed interest in creating that list, because he needs to gain importance for his very young party, La République en Marche. Partners from well-established political groups know it very well, so Macron’s negotiation potentials are limited in a way.

Secondly, obstacles that have impeded the plan in the last twenty years, are still in place. The EP and the Council can’t agree if the European list could be introduced without changing the Treaty. The German Federal Constitutional Court has also cast doubts several times about the legitimacy of the EP, whose Members are not elected according to a uniform system, implying problems with thresholds allowing to enter the Parliaments, and equality of representation between small and big Members States. It would take a long time for the electoral law in each Member State to be harmonised.

National political parties should also show serious skills of compromise in order to set up a common list, because reflexes that defend self-interest would prevail, and the process would end up again in a national pride show. However, the success of the Spitzenkandidaten system of the last elections, when each political group named its president candidate for the European Commission, gives some hope.

So, all in all, thank you, Emmanuel, for bringing up the topic. It’s great to have it on the agenda at all. But to make it happen by 2019, you need to be a magician.