Written by Silvia Kotanidis.
|The European Youth Event will bring together thousands of young people in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on 9 and 10 June 2023, to share ideas about the future of Europe. This introduction to one of the major topics to be discussed during the EYE event is one of 11 prepared by the Parliament’s Research Service (EPRS). It offers an overview of the main lines of EU action and policy in the area concerned, and aims to act as a starting point for discussions during the event. You can find them all on this link.|
European elections are a crucial moment in our democracy, giving citizens a say in the political direction of the European Union. However, as they are sometimes considered ‘second order elections’, where national rather than European issues are the focus, the European Parliament is proactively seeking ways to make EU elections more visible. After declining ever since the first European elections in 1979, electoral turnout increased in the 2019 elections. At least three elements may affect the next elections to the European Parliament, due to take place in late spring of 2024, with consequences for the balance between EU institutions.
Elections to the European Parliament are governed, for the most part, by national laws. The 1976 Electoral Act (amended in 2002) sets only certain common basic principles. These include proportional representation, voting taking place in all countries during the same ‘electoral period’, a voluntary electoral threshold for candidates of not more than 5 % at national level, and rules precluding Members of the European Parliament from taking up other public offices or national functions. The legal basis for reforming EU electoral law is enshrined in Article 223 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which makes it Parliament’s responsibility to propose the rules on EU elections, which are thereafter adopted unanimously by the Council (after Parliament has given consent).
The lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidaten, process
The first element to watch in the 2024 elections is how the results may affect the choice of the President of the European Commission. To give European citizens more of a say, the EU has tried out a new process – the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidaten, process. However, it is not certain that this innovation will be repeated, after one successful, and one unsuccessful iteration, in 2014 and 2019 respectively. This process is intended to build a more democratic link between the European Parliament (the only EU institution directly elected by citizens) and the EU executive.
Commission Presidents are chosen by the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, and ‘taking into account the elections to the European Parliament’. The European Council proposes its candidate for President of the Commission to the European Parliament. Parliament then elects the Commission President by a majority of its component Members (Article 17(7) TEU). Under the, so far experimental, lead candidate process, European political parties agreed to propose their own candidates for the position of President of the Commission. The power to propose the final candidate for the Commission presidency would then go to the party winning the most votes in the European elections (or able to marshal a parliamentary majority around their own candidate).
Although criticised as a ‘power grab’ (because it seems to deprive the European Council of its role in proposing the candidate that Parliament then votes into the Commission presidency), ahead of the 2014 elections, the Parliament offered a more nuanced interpretation of the Spitzenkandidaten process in a 2013 resolution. The lead candidate process first took place in the 2014 European election campaign, under the motto ‘this time it’s different‘. The outcome was rather successful. The European People’s Party (EPP) gained the most votes, and the Parliament and Council accepted their lead candidate, Jean‑Claude Juncker (although not without resistance), who was voted into office in July 2014.
However, the lead candidate experience in the 2019 elections was less successful. Although almost all European political parties proposed a lead candidate, the European Council put forward a different candidate. As a result, a tiny majority of Parliament’s Members (383 votes in favour, 327 against, and 22 abstentions) elected Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission President in July 2019.
The role of European political parties in the Spitzenkandidaten process is vital. Each political party runs a selection process for its lead candidate, according to its own internal rules or political strategy. The process therefore enhances Parliament’s role in the choice of the person to fill the most important EU executive position. It will consequently be crucial for European parties to decide whether to agree to repeat this experiment a third time. With the 2024 elections approaching (although the exact dates have yet to be fixed), European parties should have taken their decision by summer 2023, i.e. in good time to select lead candidates in autumn 2023.
Pending electoral reforms
Very much linked to the Spitzenkandidaten process, a second element to watch in the 2024 European elections is the pending electoral reform (contained in the draft legislative act adopted by Parliament on 3 May 2022). This reform, one of the many attempted over recent decades to ‘Europeanise’ the European elections (so that they are seen as a Europe-wide election, rather than a secondary chance to vote on national issues), would innovate in two respects. First, by addressing the current fragmentation into 27 different electoral systems, it would make electoral rules more uniform across the EU (for example, uniform minimum voting age, right to vote in third countries, 9 May as fixed election day). Next, by seeking to emancipate European elections from national debate and to bring European affairs closer to citizens, it would introduce a Union-wide constituency in which 28 Members of Parliament would be elected – not for a single country, but through transnational lists. Here, alternating candidates between small, medium-sized and large countries would ensure geographical balance. This Union-wide constituency would facilitate the lead candidate process, through a proposed political agreement between European political entities and an interinstitutional agreement between Parliament and European Council.
The EPP, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Renew Europe groups endorsed the proposals for European transnational lists combined with a lead candidate process in the January 2022 Our priorities for Europeans political agreement. The highly innovative character of these proposals and the constitutional procedures they would require mean they are unlikely to be in place before the 2024 European elections. Discussions on the proposal will surely continue during 2023, giving an indication of EU countries’ political appetite to take the long-awaited leap to making the European elections ‘more European’.
Conference on the Future of Europe
A third element to watch is the effect of the recent Conference on the Future of Europe, especially citizens’ involvement in what was considered a true exercise of participatory democracy. Held from April 2021 to May 2022, this citizen-led debate helped increase interest in European affairs (and it is hoped will increase electoral turnout), as well as producing concrete results on the role of European elections. Citizens’ panel Recommendation 16 suggests harmonised electoral conditions. Conference Proposal 38(4) proposes giving citizens a greater say on who is elected President of the Commission, either via a direct election or through the lead candidate process. While the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council must consider these forward looking and innovative suggestions before they can be implemented, they represent a clear indication of the desire to make European elections key to European democracy.