We’ve tried to understand more about how members of the European Parliament (EP) are selected but it’s not straightforward. What follows is taken mostly from the EU Parliament’s websites and Wikipedia, with a few comments from us to challenge some of the propaganda.
“Role [of the EP]: Directly-elected EU body with legislative, supervisory, and budgetary responsibilities”. Of course they don’t say just how severely limited the responsibilities are in practice.
“Established in: 1952 as Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, 1962 as European Parliament, first direct elections in 1979”.
“The European Parliament is the EU’s law-making body. It is directly elected by EU voters every 5 years.” The EP is not a law-making body in any true sense; it can scrutinise and, in special circumstances, veto laws – though it never has done that.
“Passing EU laws, together with the Council of the EU, based on European Commission proposals”. Again, the EP does not pass EU laws, except in the negative sense, when it fails to veto them.
“Reviewing the Commission’s work programme and asking it to propose legislation”. The EP does have the right to propose legislation but we can find no evidence that it has ever done so. The language here is less dishonest than elsewhere but “asking” and “reviewing” are clearly not the key functions of a true legislative body.
“Democratic scrutiny of all EU institutions”. Back to the usual propaganda; in no generally accepted sense can the EP be described as democratic. “Scrutiny” by elected representatives is not democracy.
“The European Parliament is the heart of democracy in the European Union, representing 500 million people.” This claim is why the issue of the EU’s democratic deficit is so frequently raised; if the EP is the heart of EU democracy then it has no democracy, and the voting figures give the lie to the claim that the Parliament represents the peoples of Europe.
A search of the two websites didn’t produce an answer to the question, ‘How are MEPs elected?’ Various searches produced the response, “No results found”. So we turned to Wikipedia, which is less prone to propaganda – in this context at least:
“No other EU institution is directly elected, with the Council of the European Union and the European Council being only indirectly legitimated through national elections.
“While Europarties have the right to campaign EU-wide for the European elections, campaigns still take place through national election campaigns, advertising national delegates from national parties.
“Most of the member states of the European Union elect their MEPs with a single constituency covering the entire state, using party-list proportional representation.
“The United Kingdom is split into constituencies representing Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and each of the regions of England. Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote while the other constituencies use party lists.
“Other exceptions include: Belgium, France, Republic of Ireland, Malta, Germany, Italy and Poland.”
If you think that’s confusing, try this:
“Germany, Italy and Poland use a different system, whereby parties are awarded seats based on their nationwide vote as in all of the states that elect members from a single constituency; these seats are given to the candidates on regional lists. With the number of seats for each party known, these are given to the candidates on the regional lists based on the number of votes from each region towards the party’s nationwide total, awarded proportionally to the regions. These subdivisions are not strictly constituencies, as they do not decide how many seats each party is awarded, but are districts that the members represent once elected. The number of members for each region is decided dynamically after the election, and depends on voter turnout in each region. A region with high turnout will result in more votes for the parties there, which will result in a greater number of MEPs elected for that region.”
The last two sentences here emphasise that MEPs ‘represent’ those who choose to vote rather than citizens. In fact the MEPs represent EU parties and those parties, in only a loose sense, represent national parties, which are recognised by citizens. The Europarty blocs are just too remote from citizens to raise more than token interest.
“The European Union has a multi-party system involving a number of ideologically diverse Europarties. As no one Europarty has ever gained power alone, their affiliated parliamentary groups must work with each other to pass legislation. Since no pan-European government is formed as a result of the European elections, long-term coalitions have never occurred.”
“Pass legislation” is misleading, understandably perhaps when all they really do is fail to veto legislation created by the European Commission, which in in practice the governing body.
“Europarties have the exclusive right to campaign for the European elections…”. If this is correct it is no wonder that turnout is so low; national political parties are, to some extent, known and understood while Europarties are neither.
“A 1980 analysis concluded that European elections were fought on national issues and used by voters to punish their governments mid-term, making European Parliament elections de facto national elections of second rank. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first elections in 1979, indicating increased apathy about the Parliament despite its increase in power over that period. Turnout has constantly fallen in every EU election since 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004. In Britain the turnout was just 34.3%, down from 38% in 2004.”
A more recent report (March 2015) from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, confirms the trend and tries to explain it while offering some tentative solutions.
“The low turnout can be attributed to a lack of interest on the part of politicians, a lack of knowledge about the EU, and people’s fear of losing their recovered national identity.”
The report focuses on countries of eastern Europe, where turnout has been particularly low despite their more recent accession.
“If close to 60 per cent of EU citizens eligible to vote do not participate in elections to the European Parliament, this calls into question the legitimacy of the work of the European Parliament. Legitimacy is also significant for the European Union’s stability.”
It will be interesting to see the turnout at the next EP elections, in 2019. And, if the trend continues downwards, to read the PR puff that will be put out to ‘explain’ this.
This muddle is at the heart of the EU’s version of ‘democracy’.