European Parliament electoral reform — Adopting the improved Bundestag…

Adopting the improved Bundestag system

September 30, 2019

The PDF version of this article can be found here.

Sixty years after the creation of our first European institutions, the EU still does not have a common election. Instead, we maintain 28 national elections to the European Parliament. More than ever, it is essential for our democracy and the equality of European citizens that we adopt a common voting system.


The choice of a preferred electoral system rests on the values, goal and priorities we choose to enshrine. Given our values of democracy, equality, and simplicity,1 and our goals and priorities — ensuring local representation and proportionality, guaranteeing the equality of all citizens, and creating a system both simple and clear for all —, the improved Bundestag system2 presented here is our optimal voting system.3

Based on the German lower house’s electoral system, it gives citizens a dual vote: one vote for a local candidate, one for a European party.4 Through this, we ensure both the representation of citizens at the most local level, and the proportional representation of the population’s opinion in Parliament.

However, we must build upon this system and we therefore propose a number of improvements on the Bundestag’s electoral system, including using Majority Judgment instead of first-past-the-post for the local election, lowering the threshold for the proportional vote, capping the number of elected representatives, and ensuring gender balance. Between this and our proposal for the creation of true European parties — which is to work in tandem with this electoral reform —, we can finally create the basis of a solid and lasting democratic Union for all European citizens and engage them fully in the electoral and political process.

This system guarantees: This system is compatible with:
  • True local representation
  • True proportionality
  • Equality for all EU citizens
  • Europarties as main actors of EU politics
  • Gender balance
  • The Spitzenkandidat system
  • Our values, goals and priorities

    Let us first address the elephant in the room: there is no perfect or ideal voting system. Voting systems can differ widely, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. It is a voting system’s adequacy with our values, goals and priorities that must be the deciding criteria.

    Our core values of democracy, equality and simplicity translate to the following goals and priorities:

    • Proximity of representatives to the citizens. A prerequisite for a working legislature is the representation of citizens at the most local level across the territory. Citizens must therefore be able to directly elect a representative locally. This MEP will be their point of contact in Parliament and ensures a close link between citizens and representatives.
    • Proportional representation of citizens’ preferences in Parliament. A legislature should also properly reflect the opinion of the population. The voting system must therefore ensure proportionality in the Parliament’s composition.
    • Equality of citizens. Since this is a European election, all EU citizens must be able to participate under the same conditions, including for their eligibility (voting age, residency criteria, etc.), the voting modalities (proxy voting, postal voting, etc.) and for the voting system itself (type of vote, threshold, apportionment methods, etc.).
    • A simple voting system. In order for citizens to engage in the political process, institutions must be clear and understandable. It is therefore essential for the voting system, alongside the rest of our institutions, to be simple and transparent.
    • Emphasis on true European parties. The system we design must go hand-in-hand with our call for the creation of true European parties; in particular, this system should not place the interest of national parties above that of citizens.

    Under the light of these goals and priorities, we can assess the current EP electoral system.

    Deficiencies of the current electoral system

    The European Parliament’s current electoral system is a simple proportional system mostly organised at the national level. As such, it has a number of grave deficiencies that must be addressed. In particular:

    • Representatives are far from their citizens. Member States elect between 6 and 96 MEPs each, most of them chosen on nation-wide lists. Asking citizens to know these candidates (and sometimes rank them) is more than can be expected of citizens. As a result, citizens vote for a party and have virtually no knowledge of the candidates themselves. This also means that citizens have no identifiable point of contact they can turn to in the European Parliament.
    • Citizens are not equal before the vote. Beyond general principles, all voting modalities are decided at the national level, which induces wide differences in eligibility and in the way citizens’ preferences are expressed. For instance, Belgian citizens (or EU citizens voting in Belgium) can rank their preferred candidates from a small constituency; French citizens (or EU citizens voting in France) can only vote for a predetermined, closed list of 79 candidates covering the entire territory.
    • The system entrenches the national aspect of elections. From beginning to end, and beyond the national voting systems, the electoral system is led by national parties: national parties choose candidates, draft electoral programmes, decide on political alliances, spend money, go on the campaign trail, are elected, and, under certain conditions, get reimbursed for their campaign expenses. Once elected, national candidates decide to join this or that European party (with predictability for some parties, and bargaining for others).

    For all these deficiencies — and their critical impact on the EU’s democracy —, we must propose an alternative model for the European Parliament’s election: a model that remedies these deficiencies and, at the same time, upholds our values and priorities.

    Our proposal: the improved Bundestag system

    For ease of reference, we call this proposal the “improved Bundestag system”, since it relies heavily on the election system of the German lower house. As a large federal parliamentary democracy with a rather recent constitution, updated federal electoral law, and varied multi-party political system, Germany can indeed serve as a solid reference for the EU’s own lower house.5

    However, as we will see, we also propose a number of useful innovations that aim at improving the system’s democracy and efficiency.

    Review of the distribution of seats between Member States

    Before addressing the issue of the voting system above, we must mention the distribution (or “apportionment”) of European Parliament seats among the Member States.

    The European Parliament currently has 751 seats (pre-Brexit figure) and distributes them among Member States using a system called “degressive proportionality”. According to this system, the 751 seats are allocated in proportion to Member States’ population, with a minimum number of 6 representatives (Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta) and a maximum of 96 (Germany).

    This system was adopted for two reasons:

    • A purely proportional system, with a baseline number of 2 representatives for the Member State with the smallest population would have given us a Parliament with 2332 representatives. Clearly too large for an efficient democracy.
    • Member States insisted on having a rather large number of MEPs even for the smallest national populations.

    As a result, citizens are not equal and their voices in Parliament are heavily distorted: 

    • Over 10 millions citizens from 7 Member States are more than 3 times more represented than German citizens (themselves the least represented), with rates going as high as 6, 8 or even 11 times more represented.
    • Over 32 millions citizens from 11 Member States have more than double the representation of German citizens.
    • Over 114 millions citizens from 20 Member States are more than 1.5 times more represented than German citizens.

    While exact figures may vary and increase occasionally, this level of distortion is anti-democratic and unacceptable.

    We therefore propose to change the distribution of seats, in order to focus not on Member States’ number of MEPs, but on citizens’ rights to equal representation. In our proposal, the European Parliament counts a baseline number of 700 to 800 seats. Since the Bundestag model gives two votes to citizens (one local, one for a party), 350 to 400 seats would go to local constituencies, with a minimum of 1 representative for the Member State with the smallest population. 

    As a result of ensuring proportionality, the final number of MEPs goes slightly beyond the baseline number. For instance, here is the distribution for a baseline of 800 MEPs, and a final number of 841 MEPs (although we may expect a slightly larger increase in real life).

    Member State Population (2017) Current distribution Proposed distribution
    (for 800 baseline seats)
    Germany 82.800.000   96 130
    United Kingdom 67.545.757   73 120
    France 67.024.459   74 106
    Italy 60.589.445   73 102
    Spain 46.528.966   54 74
    Poland 37.972.964   51 61
    Romania 19.638.309   32 30
    Netherlands 17.081.507   26 26
    Belgium 11.365.834   21 19
    Greece 10.757.293   21 17
    Czech Republic 10.578.820   21 16
    Portugal 10.309.573   21 16
    Sweden 9.995.153   20 17
    Hungary 9.797.561   21 17
    Austria 8.772.865   18 15
    Bulgaria 7.101.859   17 12
    Denmark 5.748.769   13 8
    Finland 5.503.297   13 9
    Slovakia 5.435.343   13 9
    Ireland 4.774.833   11 8
    Croatia 4.154.213   11 6
    Lithuania 2.847.904   11 5
    Slovenia 2.065.895   8 5
    Latvia 1.950.116   8 4
    Estonia 1.315.635   6 2
    Cyprus 854.802   6 3
    Luxembourg 590.667   6 2
    Malta 440.433   6 2
    EU-28 513.542.272   751 841

    With this distribution, not only do we prevent a damagingly large size for the Parliament, but we restore the equal representation of citizens to an overwhelming margin. Because of the minimum 1 direct representative for each Member State, there are some disparities, but the number of citizens represented more than 2 times the floor level is contained to 1 million (compared to 32 million before), and not a single citizen is more than 3 times as represented.

    It must be noted that the ratio between the populations of the smallest and largest federated entities in Germany and the US is smaller than in the EU. In Germany, the largest Land (North Rhine-Westphalia) has 27 times the population of the smallest (Bremen). In the US, the ratio between the populations of California and Wyoming is 68. In the EU, Germany has 174 times more citizens than Malta.6 This wide difference in populations is a fact we must taken into account. We propose to focus on citizens’ rights, instead of on guaranteeing a large number of MEPs to all Member States at the expense of citizens themselves.

    Baseline model: the Bundestag election

    The system we propose is largely based on the election system of the Bundestag, the German lower house. This system checks all three of our priorities: it ensures a local representation, it ensures the proportionality of political parties in the Parliament, and all citizens are equal before the vote.

    The Bundestag system is characterised by a dual vote, meaning that each citizen, on a single ballot, votes twice:

    • Direct vote. The first vote is the direct vote. It is a vote for an individual and serves to elect a direct representative from a local constituency. In order to do this, every Member States is split up into as many constituencies as it has direct representatives. As we have seen above, we propose a figure between 350 and 400 for local constituencies.
      For instance, with a total of 400 local constituencies across Europe, Germany would be split into 64 electoral constituencies; meanwhile, France would be split in 52, Portugal in 8, and Malta would be a single constituency.
      This direct vote allows citizens to vote at a very local level and to have a direct point of contact in the European Parliament: their directly, locally elected representative.

    • Proportional vote. The second vote is the proportional vote. It is a vote for a European party and serves to ensure proportionality in Parliament. Proportionality is essential, in order to avoid one party narrowly winning a large number of local constituencies and ending with a disproportionately large number of MEPs.
      For instance, in France’s 2017 presidential election, Emmanuel Macron won 24% in the first round (which includes most of the votes of another centrist party whose leader decided not to run in order to support Emmanuel Macron). However, following the legislative elections, just over a month later, President Macron’s alliance won over 60% of the National Assembly’s seats, by narrowly winning many constituencies. As a result, En Marche possesses a large majority to enact its programme, despite receiving support from less than a quarter of voters. With a proportional vote, his share of the Assembly would have remained around 25%.

    Following the vote, all candidates who have won a seat from the direct vote are guaranteed a seat in the European Parliament. The proportional vote is then used to fill in the remaining seats and ensure proportionality in every Member State.7 This is done by adding candidates from Member State-wide lists.8

    Ballot for Regular Bundestag Model
    Example of ballot for Regular Bundestag Model

    A few points are important to keep in mind:

    • Truly local representation. When ensuring local representation, we must be careful to provide a really local representation. For instance, in 2009 and 2014, France experimented with regional constituencies. The country was divided in 8 electoral regions, each electing its MEPs. Unfortunately, the regions remained so large (with each region electing from 5 to 15 candidates9), that the election was not made more local. Citizens did not feel any closer to their representatives and the country switched back to a nation-wide constituency for the 2019 elections. This is why we emphasis the need for a local election and the importance of single-MEP constituencies, in order to create a real link between representatives and citizens.
      With 841 MEPs (400 local constituencies), every MEP represents just over 607,000 citizens; with 742 MEPs (350 local constituencies), each MEP represents 692,000 citizens. This remains inferior (and therefore, more local) than the US House of Representatives, with an average of 711,000 citizens per Representative.

    • No need for transnational lists.10 The direct vote elects local candidates, while the proportional vote draws candidates from nation-wide lists. Therefore, even using the Bundestag system, there is no need for transnational (or pan-European) lists of candidates. Drawing proportional candidates from national lists helps ensure that each Member State receives a fair number of representatives, in line with the distribution of seats that was discussed above. Of course, as is already the case, this does not prevent any European citizens from running wherever he or she resides across Europe, even outside of his or her country of nationality.

    • European parties. While transnational lists are not needed, it is essential for a true political union to have pan-European parties. The Bundestag system must therefore be promoted alongside a reform on the status of European parties, in order to ensure that the campaigns are lead by European parties and their national chapter (akin to Volt Europa’s structure), instead of by national parties. This will ensure that each national chapter’s message is in line with the message of the European party and therefore addresses all European citizens, not simply a national audience.

    • Spitzenkandidat system. The Spitzenkandidat system, at the European level, is the attempt to link the choice of the President of the European Commission to European elections by having European parties choose a leader (the Spitzenkandidat); the Spitzenkandidat of the winning party would, in turn, be appointed by the European Council as President of the Commission. As we have seen following the 2019 elections, the European Council decided to nominate another candidate as President-elect of the Commission and that candidate was confirmed by the European Parliament.
      The Bundestag system is fully compatible with the Spitzenkandidat (both system come from Germany) and can work smoothly if we ensure that European parties lead the elections: European parties can then organise pan-European primaries for its supporters to identify a Spitzenkandidat, and the Spitzenkandidat of the party or coalition gathering a majority in the European Parliament ought to be appointed by the European Council.

    Useful innovations: taking the model further

    While the Bundestag’s electoral system provide a solid basis to work from, there are innovations we can bring to fine-tune it.

    2019 EP Results with Improved Bundestag Model for various thresholds
    Impact of thresholds on the composition of Parliament using the Improved Bundestag Model
    1. Thresholds. For the distribution of proportional seats, the Bundestag imposes a threshold of 5% of the proportional vote or 3 direct seats. These measures make sense in order to avoid volatility in Parliament. However, the 5% bar is a particularly high one.
      For this, we propose lowering it down to 1 or 2%. In practice, for most Member States, there is a higher natural threshold, which represents the minimum number of votes to get a seat, as the number of seats is low.
      The picture below shows the impact of various thresholds, from 0% to 6% on the number of MEPs of European parties, according to our model.

      • In terms of parties, by cutting out smaller national branches, thresholds give a bonus to larger national parties. Overall, the EPP gains as much as 7 representatives for a 5% threshold; the largest increase for a 2% threshold is only 2 seats, for the S&D.
      • In terms of countries, thresholds mostly impacts national branches in the largest countries but, at the same time, gives these countries more seats. With a 2% threshold, national branches of the Greens, ECR and GUE are cut in Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland (the EU’s largest countries, except France); however, Germany, the UK and Spain actually each gain a seat and the size of Parliament grows by three seats. This grow continues with higher thresholds.
    2. Gender-alternate lists. We propose imposing that the nation-wide lists used for the proportional vote be gender-alternate, meaning that no two candidates of the same gender may be placed next to each other on the list. 
      We can even go one step further in requiring the proportional vote to make up for any gender over-representation in the direct vote: this way, should more men be elected locally, more people of other genders would be drawn from nation-wide lists in order to ensure gender balance in the Parliament. One the one hand, this may face legal challenges as a positive discrimination measure. On the other, we can argue that voters’ preferences are not tempered with, since this only applies to the proportional vote, where citizens vote for a party and not for individual candidates; as a result, even by ensuring gender balance, we are not affecting the party’s outcome and, therefore, the intent of voters.

    3. Cap on seat numbers. In order to ensure that directly-elected candidates have a guaranteed seat and, at the same time, that proportionality is ensured, the size of Parliament must be increased. Since this helps ensure two core priorities, this is an important element to consider. However, an overly large parliament is neither wishable for its own efficiency, nor for the increased cost at the taxpayer’s expense. In particular, a 2013 reform in Germany led to the growth of the Bundestag from its baseline of 598 to an actual 709 representatives.
      Such an increase (of almost 20%) is detrimental and, in particular at the EU level where accusations of bureaucracy abound, would tarnish the image of the European Parliament. For this, we propose a cap on the size of Parliament. Mechanically, this cap would limit the amount of proportionality that would be ensured, but it would be a useful trade-off between proportionality and efficiency. We therefore propose a maximum 10 to 15% cap on the increase of the Parliament’s size. Our model, using data from the 2019 elections, shows an increase of 5,1%, although it is reasonable to expect a slightly higher increase in real life.

    4. Majority Judgment for the direct vote. One of the greatest flaws of the Bundestag model is its reliance on “first-past-the-post” voting for the direct vote. In this system, citizens vote for one single candidate among several. First-past-the-post is useful in its simplicity, but it is the worst of all voting systems in accounting for citizens’ opinions, as it forces citizens to give all their support to a single person, while saying nothing of their support (or lack thereof) for other candidates.
      Instead, voters could have the right to vote for more than one local candidate, or rank candidates, or even give them grades — all in order to bring some nuance to the vote. But the most efficient system is Majority Judgment, whereby voters assess candidates separately by giving them a “mention”, ranging from “excellent” to “rejected”. This allows voters to give their clear opinion of each candidate (leaving blank where there is no opinion), including the possibility to equally support several candidates. Without going into details, this voting system also avoids a number of voting paradoxes and eliminates strategic voters, where voters are incited vote against their own opinion in order to cheat the system. We therefore propose using Majority Judgment for the direct vote.

    5. Exploring other voting options for the proportional vote. In the same way, the proportional vote does not need to be limited to picking one single party. While Majority Judgment would not work for the proportional vote, we can indeed explore alternative solutions, such as splitting one’s vote between different parties (with parties receiving, for instance, ½ vote if a voter supports two parties) or a point-based system. This is less of a concern than the direct vote, but it is important to keep an open mind about these options.

    Improved Bundestag Model
    Infographic of the Improved Bundestag Model

    Example: the 2019 European election using our model

    So what would an election with this system look like? After all, if we are to propose a system, it is important to test it out in practice.

    For this, we have used the data from the 2019 European election and simulated an election using the Bundestag model for a baseline of 800 MEPs. All the data for our model can be found here.

    Here is how it went:11

    1. First of all, we mathed out the distribution of seats between Member States, using both the Saint-Laguë method and the Largest Remainder method. They bring the same results
    2. With this new distribution, we show that the principle of equal representation is widely more guaranteed than with degressive proportionality.
    3. Using the results of national parties for each Member State, we can find the seats gained by each European party in each Member State, as well as their share of the vote at the national level.
    4. In order to simulate a realistic direct vote, we start with the seats gained by each European party at the national level, apply a ratio in order to account for the lower number of seats (400 direct seats, compared to 751 seats in the current election), and then introduce some changes here and there to create a mismatch between the direct and the proportional vote. 
      • For instance, the S&D in Austria wins 2 local constituencies (out of Austria’s 7 direct seats)
    5. Since we have calculated the score of each European in each Member State, we have the result of our proportional vote, which serves to know how many seats are “owed” to each European party in each Member State. 
      • For instance, the S&D in Austria gets 23,9% of the vote and is therefore owed 3 seats (out of Austria’s total 14 seats)
    6. By subtracting the number of seats directly gained from the number of seats owed, we can calculate the number of candidates to be drawn from national lists.
      • For instance, the S&D in Austria is owed 3 seats and already has 2 seats filled directly, which means that the 1st candidate from the S&D’s Austrian list is elected.
      • Conversely, in Poland, the S&D won 5 local constituencies (out of 15), but, having won only 6,1% of the proportional vote, it is only owed 4 seats (out of Poland’s total of 30 seats). Since the local elected MEPs are guaranteed their seats, the S&D will keep its 5 seats, but other parties will gain extra seats to make up for it and ensure proportionality.
      • In the end, while the number of directly-elected candidates is exactly the number of constituencies (400), the number of proportionally-elected candidates goes slightly beyond the nominal number of 400 to reach 441.

    We therefore end up with a European Parliament of 841 MEPs, close to our original baseline, with voters’ opinions proportionally represented and close to half of the MEPs directly elected at the closest level to the citizens. Here are the results:

    Member States EPP S&D RE Greens ID ECR GUE NI Total
    Austria 5 3 1 2 3 0 0 1 15
    Belgium 2 3 4 3 2 2 2 1 19
    Bulgaria 5 3 2 0 1 1 0 0 12
    Croatia 2 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 6
    Cyprus 1 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 3
    Czech Republic 3 1 4 2 2 3 1 0 16
    Denmark 0 2 3 1 1 0 1 0 8
    Estonia 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2
    Finland 2 1 2 1 1 0 1 1 9
    France 12 11 25 15 27 4 10 2 106
    Germany 38 21 10 34 15 1 9 2 130
    Greece 7 2 0 0 0 1 6 1 17
    Hungary 8 4 2 1 1 0 0 1 17
    Ireland 3 0 1 1 0 0 3 0 8
    Italy 11 26 4 3 40 8 2 8 102
    Latvia 1 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 4
    Lithuania 1 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 5
    Luxembourg 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 2
    Malta 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
    Netherlands 6 6 6 3 1 3 1 0 26
    Poland 23 5 0 0 3 29 1 0 61
    Portugal 5 7 0 1 0 0 3 0 16
    Romania 12 9 9 0 0 0 0 0 30
    Slovakia 4 2 1 0 1 1 0 0 9
    Slovenia 2 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 5
    Spain 16 25 12 1 0 5 13 2 74
    Sweden 4 4 2 2 0 3 2 0 17
    United Kingdom 0 22 36 25 5 15 1 16 120
    EU-28 174 164 131 96 103 80 57 36 841

    Having a closer look at our results, we can see that the proportionality that we end up with is extremely close to the proportional vote itself:

      EPP S&D RE Greens ID ECR GUE
    Proportional vote 21.75% 20.38% 16.13% 12.00% 12.88% 9.88% 7.00%
    Final result 20.69% 19.50% 15.58% 11.41% 12.25% 9.51% 6.78%
    Difference -1.06 -0.87 -0.55 -0.59 -0.63 -0.36 -0.22
    Final result – NI 21.61% 20.37% 16.27% 11.93% 12.80% 9.94% 7.08%
    Difference -0.14 -0.01 0.14 -0.07 -0.08 0.06 0.08

    Although we had to make some changes ourselves in the data, we also observe an impact on the composition of Parliament.

    In particular, we notice a strengthening of smaller parties. This is mostly due to using European parties, instead of national ones. As such, in the 2019 election, many small national parties whose votes would have gone to smaller European parties did not meet electoral thresholds; by bundling national parties according to which European party they would join, these votes are no longer lost. 

    Since the left-wing part of the political spectrum is more divided, left-wing parties would also gain more than right-wing parties.

    So, overall:

    • larger parties, especially on the right, would see the most downward correction with this model;
    • smaller parties, especially on the left, would see the most upward correction; and 
    • while extreme-right parties do see an increase in their numbers, the model shows an overall shift to the left/centre-left of the European Parliament.
    2019 EP Results with current model
    Composition of the 2019 European Parliament using the current electoral model
    2019 EP Results with Improved Bundestag Model
    Composition of the 2019 European Parliament using the Improved Bundestag Model


    Won’t this system be too complicated?

    The Bundestag system is not the only system with a dual vote. More broadly, this system is an example of “mixed-member proportional representation”, which are also used in New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, London or Bolivia. The fact that it was used by close to 47 million voters in Germany’s 2017 election shows that can be used on a large scale. Of course, as with any new system, voters must be explained this voting mechanism, but the result is worth the learning time.

    Isn’t the proposed distribution of seats in the European Parliament unfair?Won’t smaller States be under-represented in Parliament with this distribution of seats?

    The goal of Parliament is not the representation of States, big or small, but the representation of citizens. In this sense, it is normal that smaller States — some of them with population of middle-sized cities — have a small number of MEPs.

    The current “degressive proportionality” is unfair to citizens, as it gives some citizens of the Union way more voice in Parliament than it does to others. While discrepancies on the margins are the inevitable result of differences in population sizes, degressive proportionality institutionalises wide and unacceptable levels of inequality.

    In the proposed distribution of seats, proportionality — and the equality of citizens — is restored. The small number of representatives of some Member States is simply the reflection of the size of their population. In practice, thanks to the minimum number of candidate (1 for direct election, and at least 1 for the proportional election) and by keeping their equal representation in the Council, citizens of smaller Member remain more represented than citizens of larger Member States, but to an acceptable level.

    Therefore, while less advantageous than the current system, the new distribution remains to the benefit of smaller States, as well as of all European citizens.

    Do we really need so many constituencies?

    One of the core goals of any parliament is to represent the interest of citizens in the law-making process. For this, it is useful to bring representatives as close as possible to the citizens. This is what we achieve with local, single-MEP constituencies. 

    Without these local constituencies, MEPs (as they currently are) would be elected proportionally and remain far from their representatives, at least as soon as you reach around 6 MEPs per country. On the contrary, if we only had these local constituencies, there may be a large discrepancy between voters’ opinions and the allocation of seats in Parliament — as the example of France shows.

    Finally, settling for sub-national but large constituencies (for instance, breaking up large countries in constituencies of 6 or more MEPs) would not solve the issue, as the MEPs would remain far from the citizens and the constituency would most likely be too large compared to the local administrative divisions citizens are used to.

    Can’t we have larger constituencies where we elect more people?

    As explained in the question above, settling for a middle-ground of sub-national but large constituencies would not be sufficient to achieve our priorities. France’s experiment with large sub-national divisions (of 5 to 15 MEPs) proved a failure: not only did citizens not have their “own” representative in the European Parliament, but the constituencies remained much too large compared to the scale of administrative divisions that citizens were used to (commune, département or région). 

    We could indeed decide to have small constituencies of 2 to 5 MEPs each. However, if we are going through the trouble of dividing Member States into small constituencies, then we would be better placed to do this all the way and ensure a close link between citizens and representatives by designing local, single-MEP constituencies.

    How will we draw local constituencies?

    Drawing up local electoral constituencies is not an easy task, but it is by no means an unsurmountable one either. Germany is divided into 299 electoral districts, while the US has been drawing congressional districts since 1789. 

    Given variations in population density, we may have to compromise between the geographical size of a district and its population. However, this is an issue faced by every nation in the creation of its own electoral districts, and one that nations have solved and improved on continuously. For instance, Finland’s Parliament uses much wider constituencies in the north of the country to make up for the region’s scarce population.

    The solution is to follow local administrative boundaries and to remain flexible where necessary. We propose that electoral districts be approved by an independent electoral commission or, when applicable, by a Supreme Court.

    Isn’t this Majority Judgment system too complicated for voters?

    Just like the Bundestag system of dual voting, majority judgment will indeed require citizens to get familiar with a new voting mechanism. However, its advantages in terms of more fully capturing voters’ opinion of the various candidates, as well as its ability to avoid strategic voting, are extremely important if we are serious about improving our democracy. Overall, the system is not very complicated in its functioning, and even less so in its implementation: all you have to you is give an honest opinion about the candidates.

    What’s wrong with just choosing one candidate for the direct vote?

    As we have seen before, candidates with a rather low percentage of the vote (sometimes as low as 20%, if there are a few candidates) are able to win an election – with or without a second round. However, these candidates may have the support of a small but unity minority, and be wholly rejected by the rest of the population. This is why a voting system where voters only pick one candidate may lead to results that defy common sense, in particular when two close candidates syphon votes away from each other, allowing a third and less-appreciated candidate to win the election.

    Using Majority Judgment, voters give a mention (“excellent”, “very good”, “good”, “fair”, “bad”, “very bad”, “rejected”, for instance) to each candidate. They are free to give the same mention several times. A candidate final mention is the best one given to him by a majority of the population; candidates gets a “good” mention of 52% if 52% of voters have given the mentions “good”, “very good” or “excellent”. The candidate with the best mention wins (in case of equality, percentages are used).

    Majority Judgment is a particularly powerful voting system, as it allows voters to independently assess all candidates (with the possibility to vote blank for one or more candidates). As a result, voters may strongly support several candidates and strongly oppose others, without being constrained by a fixed number of votes to allocate or by a strict ranking (which doesn’t allow, for instance, to oppose all candidates). It is not unlike grading candidate, except the mentions are more consensual in their meaning than grades and using the mean mention and not the average mention ensures support by 50% or more of the population (using the average mention, voters would be tempted to exaggerate their support in order to affect the average).


    By adopting the improved Bundestag system, we ensure that our proposal is fully in line with our values, goals and priorities, and matches our vision of Europe.

    With this system, we provide voters with a clear point of contact in Parliament at the most local level and ensure the proportional representation of citizens’ views in our legislative assembly. Furthermore, by designing a simple and uniform system, where all voters are treated fairly and equally, we contribute to simplifying our institutions and governance and help engage citizens in the political process.

    With this clear and precise proposal, we possess a powerful tool to contribute efficiently and clearly to the national and European discussions on electoral reform.

    Between this and the proposal for the creation of true European parties, we can at the forefront of proposing concrete and tested solutions for a solid and lasting democratic Union for all European citizens.

    Featured image: modified version of element5digital‘s work.

    1 While less often mentioned, simplicity is a central requirement for citizens to understand their institutions and get engaged into the political process.^

    2 The term “Bundestag system” is used here for ease of reference, since it relies heavily on the election system of the German lower house. However, we also propose a number of useful innovations that aim at improving the system’s democracy and efficiency.^

    3 For more information on a common European voting mechanism, see: ^

    4 By “European party”, we mean “an entity registered as a political party at the European level”. These parties may exist in all or some of the Member States. However, they are not national political parties.^

    5 The United States is another large federal democracy, but the structure of its party system (mostly limited to two parties), which is closely linked to its electoral system, limits the usefulness of the comparison here.^

    6 This remains smaller than the ratio between Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim, in India, which stands at 327.^

    7 Technically, this is now done in a two-step process, first with so-called “overhang” seats (überhangsmandate), and then with “balancing” or “leveling” seats (ausgleichsmandate), which aim at compensating States that received few overhang seats (because their direct vote was more in line with their proportional vote). However, this second system does inflate the Parliament’s size noticeably and may not be really needed here or should be heavily capped.^

    8 In order to avoid parties tricking the system by supporting like-minded independent candidates, thereby lowering their number of official directly elected candidates and increasing their number of proportionally elected candidates to make up for it, a provision dismisses the second vote of citizens who voted for a successful independent candidate.^

    9 Having a much smaller population, overseas territories were split into three single-MEP constituencies.^

    10 For more on transnational lists and transnational parties, see:^

    11 Since we support a system where European parties lead the campaign, the model takes this into account and groups national parties according to their European party membership (or, at least, the European party they would join if they were elected). In practice, national parties currently lead elections, which means they would have to agree on how to divide the seats among themselves (in case several national parties belong to the same European party), but this does not affect the results of the model.^

    Featured image

    Not transnational lists, transnational parties


    Not transnational lists, transnational parties

    August 13, 2019

    The PDF version of this article can be found here.

    Despite nationalist parties across Europe jumping on EU institutions’ lack of democracy to bolster their electorate, pro-European parties have yet to fully seize themselves of this topic and advance concrete solutions to strengthen European democracy.

    Among the few proposals put forward, however, one seems to have become a lingering discussion — even negotiation — item in Brussels: transnational lists for the election of the European Parliament.

    Voted down by the European Parliament in February 20181 and receiving only lukewarm support from the European Council,2 this reform remains a key proposal for Emmanuel Macron3 and was later supported by Angela Merkel4 and alluded to by Ursula von der Leyen in her speech to Parliament.5

    Yet, what may seem like a no-nonsense way to promote a “more European” Europe is, upon closer examination, unlikely to make our elections and politics more integrated, and completely foreign to the workings of federal systems. The ills it seeks to remedy are real, but the solution lies elsewhere.


    What are transnational lists?

    At its core, the idea of transnational lists simply refers to an election where all European citizens vote together for their representatives, irrespective of their country of citizenship or vote.6 All eligible citizens are grouped in one single constituency.

    In practice, transnational lists can be implemented in two different ways. The first option is to have all European citizens vote together on all the seats to be filled in the European Parliament: European parties submit lists of candidates, citizens vote for a list, and each list receives a percentage of the vote. This takes the currently predominant national system for European elections (see Fig. 1) and applies it to the whole of the European Union.

    A proportional vote with one single constituency ensures that all European citizens have exactly the same input (one person, one vote) and the same level of representation. Moreover, the overall political opinion of citizens is properly represented, as each party gets a share of seats that matches its share of the popular opinion. 

    Voting Systems for European elections
    Fig. 1: Voting systems for EU Parliamentary elections,
    number of MEPs is pre-Brexit (Credit: EPRS)

    However, the limitation of this idea is quickly apparent. With 751 seats to fill (pre-Brexit count), each list would comprise hundreds of candidates. Even if parties did not feel the need to present over 700 candidates, that number would be well over 200-300.7 Since eight lists ran for the 2019 election,8 this would amount to a minimum of 1,600 candidates.

    Since it would be inconceivable for citizens to get acquainted with so many candidates, or even a notable fraction of them, citizens would vote not for candidates but for the ideas of a party or list. As a result, we can expect a complete disconnect between citizens and candidates: citizens would have no direct representative to turn to, while candidates would neither know their constituents, nor even have a true incentive to campaign. Say your party regularly elects 150 MEPs and you stand on the 50th position, why bother seriously go on the campaign trail? Candidates would therefore not be chosen for their relationship to the voters, but based on their ability to please party insiders.

    The second option, supported by Renew Europe and a number of MEPs left and right, is more subtle. It would keep the existing national apportionment (the distribution of MEPs per country), for candidates elected at the national level, and add a transnational constituency for which all European would vote together. This would be achieved by having citizens express two votes on their ballot: one vote for their “national” MEPs and one for their “European” MEPs. In effect, these MEPs would have the same status, but be elected somewhat differently.

    Brexit provided a particularly interesting opportunity here, since it held the promise to vacate the UK’s 73 seats. By using parts or all of these seats,9 supporters of this idea circumvented accusations of making the European Parliament bigger and more expensive. Admittedly, they would still be accused of failing to make it smaller, but that argument carries less weight. Symbolically, this also allows to transform the departure of an EU Member as an opportunity for more integration. A welcome pied-de-nez to Brexiteers.


    The current state of European elections

    The core idea in favour of this proposal is therefore that creating an EU-wide constituency for a group of MEPs would make our European elections more European. But what does it mean to “make European elections more European”? Aren’t European elections already European, since we have a common election?

    The European parliamentary elections are for a single body, but they are nowhere near a unified election. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) gives the European Parliament the right to make proposals for a unified procedure for adoption by the European Council.10 Unfortunately, the Council has failed to agree on a unified procedure and settled instead for “common principles”: elections must be based on proportional representation, either through lists or “single transferable vote”.11

    As a result, the modalities of the elections differ from  country to country, inducing major and minor differences in citizens’ rights:

    Voting abroad modalities for European elections
    Fig. 2: Voting methods for citizens
    resident abroad (Credit: EPRS)
    • In Austria and Malta, the voting age is 16; in Greece, 17; in the rest of the Union, 18.
    • In Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg, voting is compulsory; not in the rest of the Union.
    • EU citizens residing abroad can vote for lists in their Member State of residence, but different requirements of residence apply.
    • EU citizens residing abroad can vote in their Member State of origin, but different requirements apply, such as conditions on the time spent away.
    • Non-EU Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK and Gibraltar, as well as certain Brazilian citizens under a special status in Portugal, are allowed to vote in European elections.
    • Parties in France, Belgium, Poland and Hungary, among others, need to overcome a 5% threshold to get into Parliament, while there is no threshold in Germany or Spain.
    • Belgium, Ireland and the UK are divided into several constituencies; Poland and Italy have a single constituency but seats are allocated to regional lists; other countries have nation-wide constituencies.
    • Finally, with seats apportioned according to a degressive proportionality, Malta has one MEP for every 80,000 inhabitants, while Germany has one MEP for every 865,000 inhabitants, making Maltese citizens almost eleven times more represented than their German counterparts.

    But, most importantly, European elections are led, in each country, by national parties. National parties choose candidates, draft electoral programmes, decide on political alliances, spend money, go on the campaign trail, are elected, and, under certain conditions, get reimbursed for their campaign expenses. Once elected, national candidates join this or that European party — with little suspense for major parties, who often already belong to specific European parties, and more uncertainty for smaller parties or independent candidates.

    Of course, European parties do exist and often draft an electoral manifesto ahead of the European elections. However, this manifesto is never used at the national level and never presented to voters, candidates of the same Europarty do not travel between countries, and there are no joint campaigns or rallies to speak of. For all intents and purposes, campaigns for European elections are run nationally.12

    Electoral thresholds for European elections
    Fig. 3: Electoral thresholds per country
    for 2019 EP elections (Credit: EPRS)

    As a result, electoral programmes submitted to voters target a national constituency and are designed for a purely national audience. Proposals do not seek to convince Europeans, but only national citizens. Elaborated separately, national programmes of the same Europarty lack coherent and often contradict each other.

    In the words of then-ALDE President and MEP Guy Verhofstadt: “A fundamental problem of the European elections is the fact that they are not at all European, but the sum of national election laws, election lists, and of national election campaigns.”13


    Would transnational lists reach their stated goal?

    The question is therefore whether transnational lists would indeed contribute to making this election more European in nature; whether adopting a common list for all EU citizens, in addition to national lists, could trigger a European discussion on the EU’s policies and the future of the European project.

    Review of arguments

    Accordingly, supporters of transnational lists have made the case that these lists would palliate the national aspect of European elections and finally make them European. Here is a critical review of their arguments.14

    Quotation mark

    The link between MEPs and their electorate would be made stronger. Transnational lists give voters more power at the expense of backroom deals. People will decide who becomes the next commission president.

    Since the proposed system would not alter the existing national constituencies, it would not affect them: the link between these MEPs and their electorate would therefore not be made stronger or more tenuous. The link between voters and candidates on transnational lists, however, would depend on the way these candidates are chosen. At best, they would be chosen by European parties following proposals by national parties; more likely, they would be imposed by national parties, which would make their representativeness of all Europeans quite limited. Voters of a given country would most likely only be familiar, at most, with the one or few candidates from their country.

    The argument about the choice of the President of the Commission relates to the idea of having each European party’s Spitzenkandidat — the lead candidate supposed to become President of the Commission in case of a victory — as list leader of that European party’s translational list. This point is doubly interesting. Not only are transnational lists not required for a functioning Spitzenkandidat system, but the “Spitz” was just recently declared dead following the European Council’s refusal to appoint a declared Spitzenkandidat for the Presidency of the Commission, and the European Parliament’s approval of a nominee who was not a Spitzenkandidat.

    It is worthy of note that those who seem here to support the Spitzenkandidat system were the same who decided or agreed to abandon it for the 2019 elections in favour of backroom deals.

    Some may argue that the transnational list system would give every citizen the opportunity to directly vote for the Spitzenkandidat of his or her choice, since he would lead the party’s transnational list. However, since the vote is proportional, citizens do not vote for individual candidates but for a party. It is unlikely that voters would vote against their party simply by opposition to the list leader. If we really want voters to choose the next Commission president, then each party should organise an EU-wide primary for the designation of its Spitzenkandidat.

    Quotation mark

    Voters will get two votes instead of one: they will have twice as much direct influence as they have now. If anything it will increase democracy, not diminish it. Transnational lists would be chosen in a transparent and democratic procedure. The process reflects the nomination of lead candidates, which are not perceived as elitist or top-down.

    While voters would indeed get two votes, the first part of this argument is abusive. As indicated above, since voters would vote twice for a party — unlike in the Bundestag election, where citizens once for an individual and once for a party —, there is no reason for them to vote for two different parties. Since all voters would keep more or less the same power, the fact that each would vote twice does not change their overall power, and each voter’s influence would remain exactly the same. The European Parliament would also not gain more prerogatives in the process and the Council would remain more powerful than Parliament.

    As for the choice of candidates on transnational lists, this would indeed most likely mirror the selection of “national” candidates, where individual citizens already have very limited input.

    Quotation mark

    No Member State will lose a seat due to their introduction of transnational lists and transnational lists would not expand the gap between smaller and larger Member States. The French government presented proposals to prevent over-representation, including having candidates from at least one third of the Member States, no single Member State exceeding 25%, having the first candidates from different Member States, and alternating nationalities.

    This argument is technically true, but also slightly deceiving. Indeed, no State would lose a seat, since transnational lists add seats. However, since what truly matters for the representation of citizens of a country is a State’s share of seats within Parliament, we must look at percentages.

    If all States were to get an equal share from the transnational lists — with one candidate for each State —, then a small State’s ratio of seats would increase more than a larger one’s. Malta’s share would grow from 6 to 7 seats (a comfortable 17% increase), while Germany’s would only grow from 96 to 97 seats (a meagre 1% increase).

    Of course, it is unlikely that every State would get one seat in the end. We must therefore look at which nationalities would make it to the top of each transnational list, and it is not so hard to imagine that larger countries or parties would ensure their own greater chances by pushing their candidates higher up the list.

    EPP S&D Renew Europe Greens ID ECR GUE
    Germany (29) Spain (20) France (20) Germany (25) Italy (28) Poland (26) Spain (6)
    Poland (17) Italy (19) UK (17) France (12) France (22) Italy (5) Germany (6)
    Romania (14) Germany (16) Spain (8) UK (11) Germany (11) Cz. Rep (4) Finland (6)
    Hungary (13) Romania (10) Romania (8) Nether. (3) Belgium (3) Nether. (4) France (5)
    Spain (12) UK (10) Germany (7) Cz. Rep (3) Austria (3) UK (4) Ireland (4)
    France (8) Portugal (9) Nether. (6) Belgium (3) Cz. Rep (2) Belgium (3) Portugal (4)
    Greece (8) Poland (8) C. Rep (6) Spain (2) Finland (2) Spain (3) Cyrus (2)

    Fig. 4: Largest country delegations for each EP political group. In black, the elected nationalities if rankings on the list reflect each delegation’s importance. In parenthesis, each delegation’s number of MEPs.

    A review of the number of seats held by each national delegation within each political group in Parliament confirms that the EU’s largest States are consistently the most powerful players within each group (see Fig. 4). Since the ranking on transnational lists is likely to boil down to country-to-country bargaining, we can expect the largest delegations to grab the top positions.15

    The proposed measures of the French government constitute a well-thought system to prevent over-representation across each list. However, since no single European Party usually gains more than 25% of the vote,16 only the first 6 or 7 seats of the list really matter (and even fewer seats for smaller parties).17 As such, only the rule asking lists to have their first seven members of different nationalities really matters.

    Despite good intentions, candidates from transnational lists would therefore indeed over-represent largest States or parties (see Fig. 5), with at least 24 of the 27 transnational seats seized by the EU’s seven largest Member States.18 The only limitation to this over-representation is, ironically, the re-introduction of nation-based quotas and rules for the one list supposed to highlight the European side of this election.

      Seats from TNL Ranking by gain from TNL Ranking by population
    Germany 5 1 1
    France 4 2 2
    Spain 4 2 5
    UK 3 4 3
    Italy 3 4 4
    Romania 3 4 7
    Poland 2 7 6
    Hungary 1 8 14

    Fig. 5: Number of seats gained by each Member State from transnational lists (based on rankings in Fig. 4), compared to each country ranking by population in the EU.

    A variant of this argument is to say that transnational seats are European and therefore do not count for the distribution of seats among Member States. Of course, this is purely speculative: even if transnational lists do not affect the number of seats going to national lists, they do change the overall number of seats held by each State.

    As highlighted before, the current “degressive proportionality” used to allocate seats to each country induces major inequalities of representation between citizens. Instead of maintaining this over-representation and accepting a biased system to partially compensate it, it would be more effective to do away with degressive proportionality and ensure the equal representation of European citizens through proportional apportionment.19

    Quotation mark

    As a Dutch citizen and European citizen, I should be able to elect by direct universal suffrage a Spanish member of the European Parliament, or a Greek could elect an Estonian.

    This more emotional argument tries explicitly to link translational lists to tearing down national borders. However, it fails to take into account that it is already entirely possible for, let’s say, a Dutch citizen to elect a Spanish citizen to the European Parliament should this person run in the Netherlands. Former Italian Secretary of State for European Affairs Sandro Gozi was thus elected to the European Parliament on the French Renew Europe list.

    Making campaigns more European

    Unfortunately, not only are these arguments limited in their veracity but none really make the case that the election itself — the campaign, the programme, the rallies, the debates — would be more European with transnational lists.20

    And, indeed, there is evidence to believe that these lists will not make the election more European. The fact is that we already have so-called European parties, but that national parties have managed to subvert them and to remain in charge of political affairs. Our representatives are already sitting in the European Parliament according to their European party, yet the vast majority of the European population never hears about Europarties, and political life remains nation-based and guided by national parties. The mere introduction of national lists will not change this fact.

    Will these lists come up with a common electoral programme? Europarties already have manifestoes, and it is more than likely that national parties will keep their respective programmes explaining what each country will do for Europe.

    Will these lists lead to candidates traveling from country to country? It is more than likely that national parties will continue to lead the show and tell their supporters to vote for the Europarty they belong to. Voters will therefore not vote for a transnational list by conviction for a Europarty, but simply by affiliation to their national party.

    Will these lists at least give a European flavour to the voting process? European citizens will continue to vote on separate days, depriving them of a joint, European moment of communion. We can also expect ballots to continue showing national parties’ logos on the ballot, maybe alongside that of the European party. At best, this may make it a little bit harder for separate national parties belonging to the same Europarty to pretend that they oppose each other, but national parties oftentimes enter publicly into alliances for European elections.

    Overall, what European parties have failed to accomplish in 40 years of existence can hardly be expected to change with a few common seats for as long as the entire process remains in the hands of national parties.

    Interestingly, no federal country uses federation-wide lists (the equivalent of the EU’s proposed transnational lists) for its legislative elections.21 The United States, for instance, elects the House of Representatives based on small federal electoral districts: every State is divided into as many federal district as it has Representatives, and every district elects one Representative. In the upper house, Senators are each elected by their State’s population. There is no US-wide list for the legislature.

    Likewise, in Germany, the Bundestag — the lower house — is elected through a double vote, akin to the proposal system for EU transnational lists. However, the first vote is for a directly-elected local representative, drawn from a small constituency, while the second vote ensures the proportional representation of political parties by adding representatives from lists constituted for each Land (State), and not from a Germany-wide list.

    This absence of best practices for the use of transnational lists in federal systems has led a number of prominent voices to openly speak against transnational lists, sometimes against their party line, with then-MEP and former President of the Union of European Federalists Elmar Brok going as far as calling them “a sin against federalism.”22

    Pressed on this point, MEPs writing a joint tribune — Jo Leinen and Mercedes Bresso (S&D), Guy Verhofstadt and Sophie in ’t Veld (then-ALDE, now Renew Europe), Pascal Durand (then-Greens/EFA, now Renew Europe), Jérôme Lavrilleux (EPP), Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA), and Dimitrios Papadimoulis (GUE/NGL) — revert to the EU’s famous get-out-of-jail-free card: “the European Union is an entity sui generis.” In other words, the EU is its own structure and cannot be compared to other political entities. A very useful way to avoid any comparison with existing models.

    They continue: “In federal States, usually an integrated party system is in place. Thus, in all parts, the same parties run for election. In the European Union this is not the case.” And this, indeed, is where the solution lies.


    Transnational parties for a true European democracy

    In and of themselves, transnational lists could have the effect of making the election more European. However, politics is not carried out in a vacuum and setting up transnational lists while maintaining a system largely dominated by national parties will not have the desired effect.

    Considering European parties

    Much like the creation of Europarties in their current form, the drafting of European electoral manifestoes by these Europarties, or even the Spitzenkandidat system itself, transnational lists will remain subservient to the interest of national parties and not make the election and the campaign more European. They are not a sufficient condition for this europeanisation and, as federal systems around the world prove, they are not a necessary, or even wishful, condition either. It would be enough that only a minority of federations would have transnational lists, but it speaks volume that none have them at all.

    Are we therefore doomed to maintain nation-centric European elections? Is there no way to efficiently make this election European?

    As Verhofstadt et al. recognise, all true federal systems have integrated political parties. The Spinelli Group, a Euro-federalist group of which Guy Verhofstadt is a founder, adds that “democracy in Europe requires real political parties at European level competing with each other for votes and seats.”23

    The first step in democratising the European Union is to realise that, while the European Union currently has a unique political structure — more integrated than confederations, less integrated than federations —, it does not exist separately from the rest of political entities. All political systems and all federal models are unique, but they can learn from each other. Likewise, calling the EU “sui generis” to avoid any useful comparison with other political systems is non-sensical and counterproductive. From this perspective, the political systems of large democratic federations — such as the United States, India or Brazil — can provide useful insight.

    European parties in practice

    Actually, despite minor policy differences and lines of fracture on specific issues, the political spectrum of most European countries is, by and large, very similar. Most countries possess right-wing/conservative parties, left-wing/socialist parties, centre-right/liberal parties, centre-left/progressive parties, green parties, extreme-right/nationalist parties and extreme-left/communist/anti-capitalist parties. Variations abound, especially with countries facing specific issues such as regional self-determination, but this remains the standard template. This is why — despite conflicting policy positions between parties — electoral alliances in the European Parliament have been rather straight-forward and stable over time.24

    A reasonable path for the creation of true European parties would therefore be the progressive integration of national parties into a common structure, adopting the same name, logo and, eventually, political programme. Country-based policy differences could persist for national-level issues but overall coherence would increase and party structures would become integrated.

    Such true European parties, without the need for transnational lists, would be able to present a single electoral programme for European elections and organise EU-wide primaries for the election of their lead candidate. This primary, unlike a vote for a transnational list, would allow party members to truly have a say for their candidate to the presidency of the European Commission — and thereby avoid the regular scenario of electing lead candidates unknown to the general public and, at best, introducing him or her to voters during the campaign.

    The creation of such parties requires a review of the current statute of European political parties,25 in particular to define them as parties (and not, as currently the case, as cooperations of national parties), authorise and organise cross-border mechanisms including elections, general assemblies and joint funding, and provide for the necessary EU-level oversight of these entities.

    Despite the absence of these mechanisms, the most far-reaching attempt at a pan-European political party is Volt.26 Created as a movement in 2017, Volt has, from the start, designed its structure as a federalised party, working with a central entity — Volt Europa — and national chapters (Volt Deutschland, Volt Italia, Volt Österreich, etc.). Each chapter develops its own national programme but policies must be in line with the European structure’s policies which are adopted by the party as a whole. In 2019, Volt ran for the European elections in eight countries and won a seat in Germany.

    Creating our political union

    This example shows that European-wide parties can be a reality, provided there be a willingness to set them up. So far, national parties have resisted this integration into European structures and it is more than likely that the mere introduction of transnational lists would fail to create integrated parties, in the same way that manifestoes or lead candidates have failed in the past.

    A surer way for the creation of real European parties is a review of the statute of Europarties and the creation of incentives and constraints. Incentives should include specific financing for the integrated European parties and a facilitation of their operations; constraints should include the necessity to run campaigns under — and only under — the name and logo of European parties.27 Such changes would push parties to integrate, without direct obligations for national parties.

    But making our election more European goes beyond the creation of true European parties and must go hand-in-hand with a profound reform of our electoral system, including through a unified electoral system.

    For the European Parliament, the idea of a double vote is a sensible one. As for the Bundestag elections, European citizens should be able to vote for a local candidate, standing for a local constituency — with each local constituency across Europe electing one representative. A second vote, for a European party, would ensure overall proportionality by drawing MEPs from country-wide lists — and not transnational lists. Of course, as is already the case, all citizens can stand for elections on either the local or country list, provided they reside in the constituency in question.

    Current European election

    Single national vote

    Citizens vote for national candidates according to national rules
    and common European principles

    Proposed transnational lists

    National vote

    Citizens vote for national candidates
    according to national rules and
    common European principles

    Transnational vote

    Citizens vote for short joint EU-wide lists
    (27 seats)

    Reformed voting system for European Parliament

    Local vote

    Citizens vote uniformly for a single candidate from a small, local constituency

    Party vote

    Citizens vote for a party to ensure proportionality, MEPs will be drawn from national lists


    Final considerations

    Overall, the appeal of transnational lists stems from two misconceptions. The first one is an underestimation of the survival instinct of national parties. Unless pushed to do so through incentives and constraints, national parties will work hard to maintain their predominance over the EU´s political life. Creating a short list comprising candidates of different nationalities will not change the core of the campaigns, nor those who run them. At best, we can except citizens to have more visibility about the names of Europarties, but national parties will remain at the helm, from the drafting of national programmes, to the selection of national candidates and list leaders, to the selection of the one or few transnational candidates and the bargaining for their position on the list.

    The second misconception concerns the role of the legislature and the executive, and their relation to citizens. The legislature’s paramount role is to propose, discuss and adopt the law. As such, it must reflect the diversity of the electorate at the local level and be as close as possible to the citizens. Despite not possessing the right to legislative initiative, the European Parliament — and European citizens — would gain from MEPs closer to citizens, and better understanding and representing their interests. By contrast, the executive provides the impetus for government action and acts for all citizens. As such, its choice must stems from the entirety of the electorate, either directly or indirectly. Therefore, the proper way to make our political system more European is not to maintain a nation-based system and provide for a small dose of “cross-nation”, but to go well beyond the nation-State — above and below — by electing our representatives locally and our executive at the European level. For the European Parliament, a “European perspective” stemming from a “unified local perspective throughout Europe”.

    As we have seen, transnational lists are neither sufficient nor necessary to make our election more European and thereby strengthen our European democracy. Nevertheless, one could argue that transnational lists “can’t hurt” and that we may still gain from their adoption. However, transnational lists do carry an actual risk. Not only do they entrench and strengthen a political system dominated by national parties, but, by achieving some reform of European elections, they are likely to diffuse any pressure for a more thorough reform and stifle the creation of true European parties — the element we cannot have a political union without — for years to come.

    Real European parties, crucial as they may be, are not the only reform necessary to create a true Union. Attempts to reform EU institutions and procedures, increase transparency, review practices, and engage citizens are all essential. However, we must be careful to support reforms that actively contribute to a more European union, not merely that show the appearance of progress. Transnational lists give the impression of a European choice; however, they do not provide citizens with more power, do not give them a say in the choice of their leaders, do not bring representatives closer to the people, do not change who chooses candidates and leads campaigns, and therefore do not lead to a more European message. They will, however, favour larger States and stifle reform. In order to achieve real progress, let us humbly take a page from other democracies and have the courage to care first about our goal — the creation of a true European democracy — even, and especially, when this means dismantling age-old political structure we have grown accustomed to.

    Featured image (left to right): Guy Verhofstadt, MEP and former President of ALDE; Emmanuel Macron, President of France; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; Andrea Venzon, President of Volt.

    1 A report “on the composition of the European Parliament” supporting transnational lists was adopted by the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in January 2017. However, the resolution drawn from this report was amended to remove all mentions of transnational lists before its adoption in the EP’s Plenary in February 2018. The content of the Plenary debates on 7 February can be found here. ^

    2 During its informal meeting of 23 February, 2018, the European Council diplomatically decided to “come back to this issue in the future, with a view to the 2024 elections.” ^

    3 President Macron mentioned transnational lists as early as his Sorbonne address of September 2017 (in French, English, and summarised here) and later repeatedly made calls in this direction, along with his party’s Renew Europe list. ^

    4 In the June 2018 Meseberg Declaration, Germany and France jointly decide “to put in place transnational lists for European elections as of 2024.” ^

    5 Von der Leyen’s speech, however, remains careful, limiting itself to the “need to address the issue of transnational lists at the European elections as a complementary tool of European democracy.” ^

    6 Since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, European citizens hold the right to vote in European elections where they reside, even outside of their country of citizenship. ^

    7 The European Parliament’s largest party, the European People’s Party (EPP), currently has 182 representatives, and had 216 in the previous legislature. It is fair to expect that they would present far more candidates. ^

    8 There are currently 10 European parties registered by the Authority for European Political Parties and European Political Foundations. In the 2019 EP election, eight lists ran and seven made the cut — with the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) failing to constitute a group in Parliament. In addition, many candidates run independently. ^

    9 Of the UK’s 73 pre-Brexit seats, 27 have already been redistributed to amend the EP’s apportionment; candidates from 14 countries have been elected for these seats and will take up their seats once the UK officially leave the EU. Renew Europe’s proposal is to use 27 of the 46 remaining seats for transnational lists. ^

    10 According to Article 223.1 TFEU, the European Parliament can propose “the election of its Members by direct universal suffrage” through “a uniform procedure in all Member States” for adoption by the European Council. A similar provision is found in the 1976 Act concerning the election of the representatives of the Assembly by direct universal suffrage (Article 7.1). ^

    11 The 2002 revision of the Act of 1976 also provides for a few other common principles, including the ability for a Member State to establish internal constituencies, the ability to apply an electoral threshold of maximum 5%, as well as other provisions regarding campaign expenses. The Act of 1976 was further revised in 2018. ^

    12 Of course, there are a few counter-examples to this statement. Several nationalist parties did organise joint rallies, including France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Holland’s Geert Wilders. DiEM25 did draft a common programme and campaigned on it in a number of countries; in the end, however, its candidates were mostly from national parties associated to DiEM25. And Volt did draft a common programme and campaigned on it in the eight countries where it ran under the same name, same brand, and same proposals — so far the most extensive example of a real European campaign. ^

    13 Why transnational lists are good for European democracy, Guy Verhofstadt et al., Euractiv, 5 February 2018. ^

    14 Here are several links to pro-transnational lists tribunes and articles, by Renew Europe, the Jacques Delors Institute, the Spinelli Group, and experts Alberto Alemanno and Angelos Chryssogelos and Malgorzata Staniaszek. ^

    15 There is no exact correlation between the relative sizes of national delegations and the rankings of transnational lists. However, the nationalities of each political group’s chair shed light on the power of the largest delegations. In Parliament, five of the seven political groups are chaired or co-chaired by nationals of their largest delegation. The EPP is chaired by German Manfred Weber, the S&D by Spanish Iratxe Garcia, the Greens by German Ska Keller (co-president with Belgian Philippe Lamberts), ID by Italian Marco Zanni, and the ECR by Polish Ryszard Legutko (co-president with Italian Raffaele Fitto). As for the remaining two groups, Renew Europe was widely expected to be led by French Nathalie Loiseau but insensitive comments led to her replacement by Romanian Dacian Ciolos, while GUE/NGL is chaired by French Manon Aubry and German Martin Schirdewan and has, for the past twenty years, alternated between German, French and Spanish leaders, reflecting its more egalitarian composition. ^

    16 The S&D won the popular vote in 2014 with 24.4%, while the EPP won in 2019 with 21%. ^

    17 Namely 5 for the S&D, 4 for Renew Europe, 3 for the Greens/EFA and ID, and 2 for the ECR, GUE and the EFDD. ^

    18 Fig. 5 shows that, based on the 2019 election results, 25 of the proposed 27 transnational seats would go to eight countries, including the EU’s seven largest ones. The remaining two seats account for the election of non-affiliated MEPs. Depending on electoral rules, these seats could be either apportioned between Europarties managing to create political groups in the EP, or held by non-affiliated MEPs. Either way, they may well also provide more seats to the EU largest countries. ^

    19 A more thorough reform of EU institutions would transform the Council of the European Union into a Senate, better able to represent the diversity of States and represent the interest of their citizens. More information on ^

    20 Sandro Gozi was elected as part of France’s supplementary seats and will take up his position when Brexit officially takes places. ^

    21 Indeed, the equivalent of transnational lists does exist in federal countries but for the election of the leader of the executive. In Germany, this election is indirect, as it is carried out by a Federal Convention that gathers all Bundestag members, as well as an equal number of electors elected by the state legislatures in proportion to their respective populations. In the US, this election can be called semi-indirect, as a special country-wide popular election is carried out (the presidential election) but leads to the election of an electoral college, which in turns elects the President. In Austria, this election is direct and the President is therefore elected by the entire eligible population, making his candidacy the equivalent of a transnational election for the federated Länder (States). ^

    22 Interview with Elmar Brok by Gesine Weber, The New Federalist, 5 April 2018. Other worthy analyses against transnational lists exist, including by members of the University of Leuven (here) or members of the UEF (here). ^

    23 The Spinelli Group does support transnational lists as a first step towards “real” European parties. Transnational lists are supposed to strengthen the Spitzenkandidat system. However, following the 2019 elections, the same Heads of States that had supported transnational lists discarded the Spitzenkandidat system. ^

    24 There are, of course, exceptions to this rule exist, such as the UK´s Conservative Party — the country’s main right-wing party — sitting with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) instead of with the European People’s Party (EPP). ^

    25 The statute of European political parties and political foundations is laid out in a Regulation of the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Its most recent version was adopted in 2014. ^

    26 Pan-European Parties in a Time of Resurgent Nationalism, Caspar Kolster and Henrik von Homeyer, German Marshall Fund of the United States, 16 May 2019. ^

    27 The 2018 revision of the Act of 1976 provides, in Article 3b, that “Member States may allow for the display, on ballot papers, of the name or logo of the European political party to which the national political party or individual candidate is affiliated.” (emphasis added). ^

    Edit: a previous version of this article indicated that Belgium did not have an electoral threshold while it has adopted a 5% threshold.