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Reform, Abolition or the Status Quo: What Should Be Done About the European Parliament?

02/06/2014 12:38 BST | Updated 29/07/2014 10:59 BST

This week, political pundits have pored over the results of the European Parliament elections. Most electorates view these results in terms of the impact that they will have on the domestic political scene rather than the implications for European Union policy-making, even though this electoral cycle will likely determine the identity of the European Commission President and the next Permanent President of the European Council.

Looking across Europe, however, one thing is clear. Though politicians in the UK and the other countries saw their electorates vote in droves for radical and former 'fringe' parties, the overwhelming victor was apathy. In the UK, 64% of people opted not to vote. In France, it was 56.5%. In Poland, it was an incredible 77.3%. Across Europe, the figure was estimated at 43.1%, meaning that more than half of registered voters opted not to turn up. The figure of eligible voters who aren't even registered who didn't vote will be even higher.

All of this calls into question the legitimacy of the election, with those who did vote largely doing so with domestic concerns in mind. Two thirds of British voters can't name one of their European MEPs. The activities of our MEPs, despite laudable attempts by organisations like Votewatch EU, are extremely obscure. The role of the Parliament itself is basically unknown to the average voter, even to those with a degree of political sophistication and knowledge.

In addition to this, the sole quality to recommend European Parliament elections - a proportional voting system - is also imperfect, depriving at least British voters of the constituency link as well as not allowing voters to proffer a second choice. On top of this, it is not even particularly proportional. For example, the Liberal Democrats required over one million votes in order to see a single MEP elected this time around. For Labour and the Conservatives, the figure was closer to 300,000.

All of which leads us to say that the status quo is unsustainable, and that genuine reform is needed.

Abolish the European Parliament

This is not necessarily a Eurosceptic point. Indeed, proponents of the Federalist ideal might find much to recommend it, with the likes of UKIP and their brethren no longer having a voice in the European policymaking process. It would allow the specialist European bureaucrats to develop policy in the relative quiet of a de-politicised Commission, with political direction coming from the elected Governments which make up the union as a whole. Such a proposal would be controversial, effectively reducing the scope of democracy in the member states, but it may actually make the EU more responsive to the political preferences of its population, with governments having to achieve 'wins' for a domestic audience when they engage with the EU at all.

A 'delegate assembly' from national parliaments

A less controversial suggestion, and one which may share some of the virtues of outright abolition, would be to replace the current European Parliament with an assembly of temporary delegates from national legislatures. These could be selected either by the legislatures themselves (in the same way that the House of Commons chooses Select Committee chairs and members) or nominated by the party leaders, weighted by chamber composition. These MPs would essentially be seconded from their roles in their national legislature for one year, with annual elections or selections determining their replacements. This would allow of the preferences of the national electorate to be more easily transmitted into the European arena, with a relatively short stay in Brussels assuring that the temporary members wouldn't 'go native'.

A delegate assembly from regional and local Government

As so much of the European Union's policymaking flows down regional lines, it may be logical to select our European representatives with this in mind. Although in the UK, our constituencies are already regionally based, this regional dimension could be strengthened by allowing some combination of local and regional governments (where it exists) to select delegates to the EU. In the UK, this would also speak to the stated aims of members of all parties to increase and enhance the role of local authorities and regional and city government. Were a future Labour Government were to reintroduce a regional tier of policymaking those new bodies could also be given a role. If this process was in some way linked back to Local Government elections, then this would also reduce the inherent problem of lacking a direct democratic mandate.

Hold elections on the same day as National Elections

One of the reasons that European Parliament elections have such low turnout is that often take place in isolation or are coupled with other low-turnout elections. There is a wealth of literature on differential turn-outs caused by the timing of elections, but ensuring that these elections were held on the same day as national (or in some countries regional) elections with high-turnout would ease at least part of the legitimacy crisis that currently faces the European Parliament. One objection to this idea might be that it would mean the composition of the Parliament was in a constant state of flux, with the composition of the party changing almost constantly. However, given the modest role of the Parliament, and the sheer scale of the legitimacy problem, this would represent a minor drawback.

Increase the role of the Parliament relative to the rest of the European Union

One idea that occasionally rears its head is that of increasing the role of the European Parliament relative to the Commission, with the Parliament given legislative primacy and initiative, increased power over senior Commission staff, and full control over the European Union budget. This would increase the influence, and with it the visibility of the Parliament as an institution. A more radical option still may be to create a kind of 'Westminster' system in the European Parliament, in which Members also take on Commission roles in the way that UK MPs take on Ministerial roles. While alien to a number of European countries, this would ensure that Commissioners were accountable in a very real way to the Parliament. Opponents of this idea would point to the myriad shortcomings of the Westminster model where it is practiced, but it would certainly provide for a stronger link between the Parliament and the Commission.

Reform the electoral system

Finally, the electoral system that the UK uses has shown itself to be inadequate. While moving away from First Past the Post in 1999 was wise, the Closed List PR system which replaced it has similar inadequacies. Specifically, it underrepresents smaller parties, and doesn't even have the saving grace of a constituency link. Democratic Audit's briefings for the European Parliament elections in the UK argued that the cluttered ballot papers stuffed with candidates who couldn't possibly win a seat was a disservice to voters. The Additional Member System may be a better fit, which would allow contests to continue to take place down regional lines, with additional 'top up' members creating a degree of greater proportionality.

While nearly all of these ideas would require treaty change or major reform at national or continental level, all of them would make a positive difference to either the quality of European governance, turnout, or both. Realistically, outright abolition of the Parliament, or creation of a completely different type of assembly is likely to be off the agenda, however struggling on as things are ought to be seen as equally fanciful. Turnout for these elections looks destined fall continually, while the thin veneer of legitimacy that the European Parliament enjoys will continue to wither away.

As turnout falls, the voices of highly motivated and organised fringe parties becomes amplified, allowing them to build organisations and increase their profile in countries which are usually resistant to their divisive and damaging rhetoric and in some cases policies. Inaction may be the easiest option, but it may also, in the long-term, be the most dangerous.

Sean Kippin is Managing Editor of Democratic Audit at the London School of Economics

Image credit: Peter Broster, CC BY SA 2.0