In the midst of a nasty break-up in the West and moves by Hungary and Poland towards ‘illiberal democracy’ in the East, a unique opportunity might present itself: a pan-European list of MEPs. Because let’s face it, the European elections do not rouse the spirits of most European citizens. Very often, European elections are hijacked by national quarrels that transform the European elections into an evaluation of respective national government’s performances. While we know all about Trump and American affairs, European issues do not get a seat at the dinner table. With the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union in March 2019, 73 seats will become available in the European Parliament. Notwithstanding the trauma of Brexit, these free seats can be used to create a pan-European list of MEPs to be voted upon directly by European citizens. Such an electoral college will strengthen European democracy, thereby bringing the EU ever closer to its citizens and put a halt to the nationalization of the European elections.
More than being just a fancy idea, it provides a firm response in the face of recent illiberal moves by Hungary and Poland. Over the last year, ruling Eurosceptic parties Fidesz and PiS have taken several highly controversial measures. For example, by taking government control of NGO funding. Recently, their close bond was confirmed when Mateusz Morawiecki, freshly appointed Prime Minister of Poland, decided to use his first bilateral visit to meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Together, their deep resentment and distrust of Brussels increasingly poses a threat to Europe’s core values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
The same feelings of distrust and dissatisfaction are present among their people. Eurobarometer shows that 64% of the Hungarian population does not feel like their voices count in the EU, while the EU average is 52%. In Poland, the situation looks slightly better, however, trust in the EU has gone down slightly since 2016. These numbers do not provide us with reasons why. They do, however, show the need for engagement with Eastern European citizens to make them feel heard on the European level as well. A pan-European list can achieve that purpose by directly addressing citizens’ EU concerns. In addition, the introduction of such a list displays trust in the European project. This will not take down Eurosceptic and illiberal tendencies on the national level altogether, but it might be a step in the right direction to preserve European unity and prevent East and West from drifting apart.
French President and self-proclaimed European visionary Emmanuel Macron has already positioned himself firmly behind the pan-European list when he mentioned that such a list will “send a message of confidence and unity in the European project”. And he is not alone. Italy, Greece, and Spain have voiced their support as well, while several prominent figures and party leaders within the European Parliament have also expressed their enthusiasm. One of them being ALDE-leader Guy Verhofstadt. Acting as a rapporteur, he explicitly sees the benefits of such a joint constituency in these times to address “the rise of populist parties and nationalist movements,” and the “increased dissatisfaction among a growing section of the population.”
To be sure, not everybody is convinced yet. Opponents in the Parliament mention the political and legal uncertainty right now, at times when the Brexit is not yet finalized. In addition, all Member States would have to agree to change the legal basis for elections, which seems quite unlikely at this point.
However, with 2019 coming closer, the current state of uncertainty can actually be very beneficial to European integration. It provides the Parliament with unique leverage material as it has to sign off on the eventual Brexit agreement. Moreover, in 2015, discussions led to a stalemate on this issue, because Member States had to give up their precious seats. With the UK leaving, 73 seats are simply up for grabs.
A final concern was raised by Richard Corbett, a British Labour MEP, who argues that a pan-European list will only result in “two categories of MEPs” and he questions whether a pan-European list will actually bring Europe closer to its citizens. Admittedly, the effects might be hard to predict. Nonetheless, we should realize that such a pan-European list exists de facto within the current European Parliament system. This means that there is some room to extend this to the ballot. And let’s be honest, in light of current developments, it is worth a try.
With the 2019 European elections coming closer, it is vital to start a serious discussion on the possible benefits of such a list now. Especially as Euroscepticism sways across the continent, it’s time to talk about ways to keep the European family together.
About the author: Linda Piersma is a Master student Euroculture at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She has performed extensive research on the migration crisis and the rise of populism across Europe.