The 2014 European elections were undoubtedly ground-breaking. Their historical character was determined by the fact that all of the “traditional” European political families decided to diligently implement the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty.
These enabled their European federations, the so-called euro-parties, to engage in the campaigns and also prompted them to elect top candidates. In the event of their respective euro-party’s victory, these candidates would become a nominee for the position of President of the European Commission.
Whilst this could seem like a straightforward set of rules, their interpretation was heavily questioned. Initial debate on the topic inside of the European Parliament was rather instructive, since it pointed out that the aforementioned ‘victory’ may be seen either as a party’s having achieved the largest number of MEPs in the group or as its ability to create the largest alliance backing the potential candidate. At that point the idea was considered more abstract, whereas today, after this year’s crack in the grand coalition, that old debate may reopen and matter. But whilst the discussion inside of the European Parliament was settled promptly, the struggle to get other institutions – especially the Council – to recognise this reading of the provisions and therefore accept Jean Claude Juncker as President-elect continued for a while longer. Ultimately it concluded with the Heads of States giving in: a historical achievement for the European Parliament and indirectly one for the euro-parties as well.
A “one-time concession”
One might think that this set a precedent, however ongoing discussions provide evidence to the contrary. It would seem that some members of the Council consider 2014 and the way it played out as a sort of a “one-time concession”. It being mid-term and with eyes turning to 2019, these members wish to make U-turn and would rather return to the olden days when positions were allocated behind closed doors. This would be undesirable, as it would constitute a retreat from the path that has and could continue to make the European decision-making process more transparent and hence more democratic. This is why the commitment of the European Parliament, as expressed in a vote on the report of Jo Leinen and Danuta Hübner in October 2015, to continue and pursue further reforms of European Electoral law(s) is so relevant.
The adopted text makes a clear point: that the experiment with the top candidate was a beneficial one, raising political awareness and contributing to the mobilisation of citizens during the campaign. It is true that turnout has not yet substantially increased, but at least the 30 year long trend of decline from election to election was brought to a halt. Besides recommending continuity in 2019, the report sheds light on some other feasible proposals that could strengthen democracy in Europe. Among them is the idea of creating so called ‘transnational lists’ to be presented to citizens during European Parliament elections.
Even though this idea has not yet gained momentum, it is worth serious consideration for a number of reasons. First of all, it would close certain loopholes that were discovered when the idea of euro-parties running with top candidates was put into practice. The most serious among them was that the legitimacy of the potential president-elect would remain indirect, since he or she would only feature as a votable candidate in one out of 28 Member States. On a similar note, there were also some states where citizens could not support their desired top candidate, since not all of the euro-parties have members in every respective Member State. Hence, a transnational list would be a way to improve and enable all voters to directly support a nominee of their choice to run for the European Commission in the future.
Secondly, while much has been said about the positive developments that the campaign and European elections brought in 2014, it is important not to forget about certain other worrying trends. The current European Parliament, as it stood after elections, is the most fragmented in history and features the largest number of anti-European and euro-sceptic MEPs ever. They have been elected in line with the reigning mood of European rejection, whereby people exhausted with the crisis and the measures taken in its aftermath (including austerity) grew resentful of the European project as it is currently presented. Given that, two and a half years later, the EU continues to battle the same draining problems – with internal imbalances and divisions continuing to grow, alongside an increasing inability to face challenges – we could be led to think that circumstances in 2019 may be even less favourable for the pro-European parties to make their case.
The tool for a new trajectory
In this context, transnational lists could become a tool capable of setting a new trajectory in the European debate. At this point, it continues to divide the electorate along the lines of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Europe, whilst it should focus more on ‘what kind of Europe’ we want instead. It also divides voters along the boundaries of the national Member States, within which they remain focused on what Europe can offer them and not what future Europe should be heading towards in order to ensure prosperity and social progress for all. Hence, the top candidate together with a representation of candidates from different countries united on the same list would constitute a team, a symbolic representation of the consolidation of national parties who share an ideological standpoint on proposals for the future of Europe. Together they could change the terms of the campaign, elevating it from its rejectionist and nationalistic corner.
Without a doubt, the progressives should be the ones who pave the way and do their utmost to realise the establishment of the proposed transnational lists. 67 years ago, Paul Henri Spaak agreed to run for president of the predecessor of today’s European Parliament on the condition that every socialist and social-democrat from all the national delegations supported him. They did, and his election boosted the creation of the political groups within which MEPs now work. This, if nothing else, should give us the courage to believe that yes we can make history happen again.
More on transnational lists and the proposals ahead of the 2019 EU elections can be found in the material of the FEPS Next Left Working Group on the Future of the Transnational Parties, which since 2016 has been working under the leadership of Jo Leinen MEP and benefitting from the support of the Renner Institut in Austria.