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Direct European Elections : The history of the right to vote

With this 8th edition of the European elections in 2014, European Union citizens will once more have the opportunity to vote for their representatives in the European Parliament. The first EP elections took place in 1979, but the discussion on the importance of active participation of citizens of the Member States already began in the 1950s. It took 27 years from the first meeting of the European Coal and Steel Community’s (ECSC) Common Assembly for the citizens to have a say on representation in the EP.

European Election Campaign

The Treaties

The Treaty of Paris (1952), which established the European Coal and Steel Community, did not exclude the direct election of members of the Common Assembly. In fact, Member States could designate representatives from their own national parliament or have them directly elected by universal suffrage. No Member State ever chose the second option.

On the eve of the signature of the Treaties in Rome in 1957, the Common Assembly reopened the debate on increasing the powers of the parliamentary institution and, in this connection, its election by universal suffrage, which would also give it greater moral and political authority.

The Working Party on Elections

Fernand Dehousse was designated chairman for both the sub-committee and the working partyAt the inaugural meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Institutional Matters of the European Parliamentary Assembly on 21 March 1958, Fernand Dehousse, a member of the Committee, proposed that a specific Working Party on elections be created. At its meeting of 22 October, the Political Committee decided to set up a sub-committee, which held its first meeting the next day.

At its meeting of 12 January 1959, the sub-committee took the name of Working Party on European Elections. Fernand Dehousse was designated chairman for both the sub-committee and the working party. The working party initially had 9 members and, from March 1959, 13 members. It met 20 times between October 1958 and March 1960.

The final document of the working party, which was debated over several days and adopted in plenary in May 1960, underlined the importance of direct elections in the European integration process but understood that it would be difficult to organise them in such a short time. This reasoning persuaded the group to opt for postponement of the introduction of direct elections and for a period of transitional arrangements. Later, the debate on universal suffrage underwent a significant slowdown in the course of the ’60s, but regained strength at the end of the decade.

The Decision

In May 1968, a group of MEPs tabled a motion for a resolution that aimed at relaunching the debate over elections by direct suffrage. This motion did not simply call on the Council of Ministers to discuss the issue, but drew its attention to the article of the EEC Treaty which made provision for legal proceedings in the event of the Council’s failure to act. The resolution adopted on 12 March 1969 opened a period of intense relationships and dialogue between the Parliament and the Council.

In 1973, the Political Committee requested authorisation from the EP Bureau to draw up a new report on direct elections. The resolution, including a new draft convention, received the support of the majority of the political groups and was adopted by the Assembly on 11 February 1975.(OJ C 32, 11.2.1975, p. 15)

The Council examined the draft Convention and in September 1976 the President-in-Office of the Council announced the Act concerning the election of representatives to the Assembly by direct universal suffrage (OJ L 278, 8.10.1976, p. 5).

This text was almost identical to the 1975 draft Convention, except for the composition of Parliament and for the fact that the Council could decide the date of the first elections.

The date of the first direct elections

Delays in some Member States in adopting the relevant electoral laws made it impossible for the elections to take place in 1978, as decided by the Council. Finally, under pressure from the European Parliament, the Copenhagen Summit of April 1978 set the date of the first European direct elections for 7-10 June 1979.

The date of the first direct elections

For further information, please consult “Towards direct elections to the European Parliament“, Cardoc Journal, Special Edition, March 2009

About Historical Archives

The Historical Archives maintain and make available to the public the documents related to the legislative and political activity of the European Parliament from 1952 until the 6th parliamentary term (2004-2009).

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