Members' Research Service By / January 11, 2023

Heading towards the 2024 European elections [Ten issues to watch in 2023]

The year 2023 will be a crucial one in the run-up to the 2024 European elections, with Parliament facing several major political challenges.

Written by Silvia Kotanidis.

This is the seventh edition of an annual EPRS publication aimed at identifying and framing some of the key issues and policy areas that have the potential to feature prominently in public debate and on the political agenda of the European Union over the coming year.
The topics analysed encompass the 2024 European elections, budgeting in times of crises and war, lessons for public investment in the EU from the EU recovery instrument, the fiscal and monetary policy mix, climate
and socio-economic tipping points, the impact of increasing fuel prices on transport, cyber-resilience in the EU, protecting media freedom and journalists, the future of Russia, and geoeconomics in an age of empires

The year 2023 will be a crucial one in the run-up to the 2024 European elections, with Parliament facing several major political challenges. Some of these are linked to the nature of European elections and to long-standing efforts to involve the electorate more and to ‘Europeanise’ the elections. Other challenges are linked to recent events that have exposed the need for internal reflection within Parliament and for reforms on transparency and ethics.

As announced promptly by President Roberta Metsola on 12 December 2022 following the wave of investigations into illicit lobbying activities, and reiterated by Members in a resolution the same week, Parliament supports a reform process that touches, inter alia, upon the transparency register, an interinstitutional ethics body and a special inquiry committee. How these and other matters are handled by Parliament and the other EU institutions in 2023 will play an important role in the tone of the electoral campaign, in citizens’ trust in the EU and ultimately in their participation in the 2024 European elections.

In addition, at least three elements – less linked to current events, but more to the nature of European elections and to ongoing institutional work to make them more prominent – are expected to be at the heart of discussions in 2023. The first such element is whether the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidaten, process will be repeated at the 2024 European elections. This process was intended to build a more democratic link between the only EU institution directly elected by citizens – the European Parliament – and the EU executive – the European Commission. In doing so, the hope was also to increase voter turnout, which had been steadily decreasing over the years (see Figure 1). To achieve this, inspiration was derived from the explicit link that the Lisbon Treaty reform establishes between the European elections and the election of the President of the Commission, whereby ‘Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament’ the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, proposes to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission, who shall be elected by the Parliament by a majority of its component members (Article 17(7) TEU). Under this non-formalised process, European political parties agreed to propose candidates for the position of President of the Commission, with the party that wins the most votes in the European elections, or that is capable of marshalling a parliamentary majority around a candidate, rewarded with the power to nominate their candidate to the Commission presidency.

Under the motto ‘this time is different‘, the lead candidate process was run in the campaign for the 2014 European elections, with a rather successful outcome as Jean-Claude Juncker, the EPP lead candidate, was agreed upon – not without resistance – as the European Council candidate, and then proposed to Parliament which ultimately voted him into office on 15 July 2014. That successful experiment was less successful at the 2019 elections when Ursula von der Leyen, an outsider in terms of the lead candidate process, was elected Commission President on 16 July 2019 by a slim absolute majority (383 votes in favour, 327 against, and 22 abstentions).

The Spitzenkandidaten process is based on the crucial role of European political parties, which each select a person to run as their lead candidate. Each political party runs a selection process for its lead candidate, according to its own internal rules and political strategy. From the Parliament’s perspective, it is a process that enhances Parliament’s role in the choice of the most important EU executive position, an influential role that it would not wish to give up. The year 2023 will therefore be crucial for the European parties in deciding whether, in the absence of any formalisation of the process, to repeat the experiment a third time. With the 2024 elections approaching (the precise dates have yet to be decided) the political will of European parties would have to crystallise by spring/summer 2023, i.e. in good time to select the lead candidates in autumn 2023. It is said that the chances of success of the Spitzenkandidaten process, whose automaticity the European Council has explicitly rejected, would be higher if the outgoing President of the Commission were to run as a lead candidate. European political parties being the protagonists in this process, some positive impact could also derive from the enhancement of their access to EU funds, should the proposal on funding of European political parties and foundations be adopted by the co-legislators in 2023.

The second element is the pending electoral reform contained in the draft legislative act adopted by Parliament on 3 May 2022. That too is very much linked to the lead candidate process. This reform, one of the many attempted over recent decades to ‘Europeanise’ the European elections, would innovate in two respects. First, by addressing the current fragmentation into 27 different electoral systems, it would make electoral rules more uniform within the EU (e.g. uniform minimum common voting age, right to vote in third countries, 9 May as fixed election day). Next, by seeking to emancipate European elections from national-focused debates and to bring citizens closer to European affairs, it would introduce a Union-wide constituency in which 28 Members of Parliament would be elected through transnational lists, with geographical balance ensured between small, medium and large countries through a set alternation of candidates coming from these three groups. The proposal would also provide for the new Union-wide constituency – a major step towards the Europeanisation of European elections – to be accompanied by the formal introduction of a lead candidate process, with a political agreement between the European political entities and with an interinstitutional agreement between Parliament and European Council.

The political will to engage in a path where European transnational lists are combined with a lead candidate process was endorsed by the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe groups in a January 2022 political agreement, Our priorities for Europeans. It is unlikely, however, that the draft legislative act containing the electoral reform described above will be unanimously adopted by the Council, receive the consent of an absolute majority in Parliament and then be ratified by all Member States according to Article 223 TFEU in time for the 2024 European elections. Account should also be taken of the safeguard enunciated by the Venice Commission: that electoral reforms should enter into force at least one year prior to elections. Discussions on the proposal will however likely take place during 2023, giving an indication of the political appetite of Member States to truly make the long-awaited leap to make European elections more European.

A third element is the effect of the Conference on the Future of Europe, and in particular that of the involvement of citizens in what was considered a true exercise of participatory democracy. This engagement might not only have raised the interest of citizens on European affairs, hence possibly also having a positive effect on electoral turnout in the next elections, but has also produced concrete results as far as the role of European elections is concerned. Recommendation 16 of the citizens’ panels suggests harmonising electoral conditions, while proposal 38(4) of the Conference on the Future of Europe calls for citizens to have a greater say on who is elected President of the Commission, either by a direct election or through the lead candidate process. While such forward-looking and innovative suggestions must be considered for implementation by the three institutions in the coming months, they represent a clear indication of the desire to make European elections a truly salient moment in European democratic life.

Figure 1 – Turnout in European elections across all Member States (%) since 1979

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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