Democratizing the European parliament elections: why is it needed and where are we at
Within the Euro-enthusiast bubble, there is one question people can never wrap their heads around: how is it possible that there are people who do not feel enthusiastic about the EU at all? Trust me, I know because I have been one of them.
Francesca Romana D'Antuono is co-president of Volt Europa.
Since being a part of the EU has meant so much for each member state and for its citizens, both in past and recent times, the average euro-corno - which is a fun Portuguese word to indicate EU fans as I recently learned - wants everybody in their community to share the sentiment. And that is not unreasonable: just recently, the EU was able to deliver an incredible amount of funds to revamp our economies threatened by the Covid crisis; when it comes to climate change, common action from the EU is the single most important weapon in our hands to influence the process of a global green transition. So why do European politics seem so distant and complex at best?
One of the reasons for this feeling is the fact that the construction of a real European democracy still has a long way to go
When this issue is raised, the focus is usually on the inability of the EU parliament to initiate or propose its own legislation, which is indeed one of the most important factors for this disconnection. However, there is more to that: the composition of the parliament per se is deeply flawed and undemocratic. Electing a member of the European parliament can be an entirely different job in Italy, Germany, and The Netherlands, for example.
For starters, a person’s right to be a candidate varies depending on their age: in Italy, it’s impossible to run before 25, while in Germany it’s allowed at 18. Interestingly enough, Dutch citizens can run as long as they turn 18 during the mandate, so while a middle school girl from The Hague could ideally put herself up for office, a graduate from Rome would not be allowed to.
What about parties’ right to run? Also an entirely different story: Germans need to collect 4000 handwritten signatures of support by people with a certified right to vote.
On the side of the Alps, the ratio becomes fifty times bigger, with new Italian parties needing to collect 150.000 signatures with a specific distribution over the national territory, and with a certification from either a notary (not exactly inexpensive to hire) or an elected official from another party (not necessarily prone to support newcomers).
A Dutch party needs to have over 11.000 euros to invest per candidate. The deposit will eventually be paid back if at least 75% of the votes to win a seat are collected by the candidate, otherwise, it’s gone, independently if they represent savings from 10 years or just pocket money. On the bright side, Dutch candidates only need to make sure they have 30 “supportive letters” and they are good to go.
As if the different entry barriers weren't enough, the kind of votes needed to get into parliament also vary, both in absolute and relative terms. In our example, Italian candidates - which by the way would, by law, run in a gender-balanced list, unlike their German and Dutch colleagues - need to be in a group that collects at least 4% of the votes. An astonishing number compared to the 250.000 and the 210.000 needed to elect a German or Dutch MEP, where there is - to date - no threshold and the plethora of elected officials mirrors faithfully the votes expressed by the citizens.
The experiment was run by us in Volt Europa during the 2019 European elections. For the first time, a political party tried to run in all the member states with the same program, the same symbol and the same values.
Did we stand the same chances everywhere then? Not really.
The efforts put in place by the teams gave very different results, marking the election of Damian Boeselager in Germany with 0.67% of the votes. In the Netherlands, despite almost 2% of the voters putting their trust in the vision of a more fair and united EU, no seat was won. As for Italy: the high democratic barriers for newcomers did not allow the team to run in the first place.
The different rules according to which MEPs are elected, teach us that we do not yet live in one democracy, so how can the European Parliament be the house of the European people, if they have a very different say - for starters - on how the house is formed?
In the years where the EU has finally advanced so much, it is about time for the voice of the citizens to be equally represented. Volt Europa’s experience led to a proposal for a new European electoral law currently being discussed in the European Parliament with the support from the Greens/EFA, Renew Europe, as well as pro-democracy NGOs & CSOs. It aims at a deep reform and focuses on harmonizing criteria according to which parties can run for elections, as well as those to become a candidate; uniforming voting age by setting it at 16; ensuring gender equality with the “zipped list” mechanism; not implementing an electoral threshold so as to make access to the parliament more proportional, democratic and transparent.
This last point is the one where the battle is happening. To date, it’s easy to point fingers at the EU when problems arise - as it happens in the case of managing migrant and refugee inflows - than to understand a nuanced story involving geopolitics, destabilization, and the need for safety. Democratizing the EU will speed up decision-making, ensure equal opportunities for representation in all member states and, most of all, enhance accountability towards citizens.
Nevertheless, for the time being, opposition to it remains strong and the discussion hasn’t reached a conclusion.
DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.