Rubber chicken with an EU flag in its rear

Selection processes are nearing completion to determine the party lists for the June 2009 European Parliament election in the UK. For Labour (more here) and the Conservatives, whose internal party procedures prioritise sitting MEPs, it’s already possible to name more than half of the MEPs that are due to be elected before a vote has been cast and even before a single leaflet has been delivered to a voter.

Simply put, if a candidate manages to get themselves to the top of a list they are sure to be elected and needn’t lift a finger between now and 2009 to ensure they can carry on for a further term. Labour and the Tories are never going to poll below 20%, so if you’re top of a list, why worry?

This is all because the European Parliament election system used in the UK is wrong and is in need of reform.

The UK is divided up into 13 regions to elect its MEPs, each region returning between 3 and 12 MEPs. A voter puts a cross beside a party name on the ballot paper, and the MEPs are allocated on a proportional basis. Only – in contrast to many proportional election systems in use in different European countries – the lists are closed, i.e. voters cannot choose from among a party’s candidates.

This system creates perverse incentives for sitting MEPs. Essentially there are 3 factors that should determine the performance of an MEP: legislative work in Brussels, ability to deal with citizens concerns about the EU (a representative role), and party political commitments. As the UK’s MEP election system features closed lists, there’s little incentive for MEPs to focus their energies on any factor other than keeping the party sweet. Schmooze with enough party members on the rubber chicken circuit and you’ll be top of the list. The dearth of knowledge about the EP in the general population (and party members) in the UK means detailed questions about an MEP’s individual performance are unlikely.

So what’s the solution? A proportional election system must be maintained – as far as I’m aware the EP’s internal rules even make it an obligation (it’s actually a 2002 Council Decision – see the comment below for more). Plus no one wants a return to large one-member constituencies with first-past-the-post, and a result skewed heavily in favour of the largest party.

Hence the best bet is to open up the party lists. This could be done either along the Swedish model – where voters can choose among a party’s candidates on the list, choosing people from further down the list if they prefer them – or the Irish Single Transferable Vote model, where voters can express preferences for candidates from different parties if they wish to.

At a stroke the incentives for MEPs would be changed. Sitting MEPs would have to defend their legislative and representational roles – the electorate could choose a different, new, energetic candidate instead of someone who’s been in the EP for 15 years.

The parties would of course still decide which candidates to really prioritise in their campaigns, but being 8th out of 8 on a regional list would immediately become a more attractive proposition. Rather than the high hurdle currently in place – dislodging a sitting MEP in an internal party process – there would be the positive incentive for each candidate to present their own merits, and make their own case for selection.

It would for sure be uncomfortable for political parties, but it would improve voter choice and even make European Parliament election campaigns a bit more interesting.


  1. Barry Buckley

    All candidates for MEP should be submitted by their respective parties with their resume’s up front then the electorate could select whichever candidates they wish to go forward to the election.At this time the electorate
    would know exactly who it is that they are electing and could then vote Partywise.With the present system most of the electorate have no idea who it is that they are voting for to representing them in Europe. This method is alien to the British voter and could be tantamount to electorial vote rigging.Most Britains have no idea just what an MEP is or what shenanigans they get up to in the EP or how much they cost us,get paid and claim in expenses.What accountability is maintained to control these invisible toothless bureaucrats?

  2. Maybe because I don’t know the answer? I am really unsure on this – sorry.

    “What effect has the near-certain re-election of some MEPs upon the input legitimacy of EU legislation?”

    These MEPs are still elected after all – it’s that essentially people vote for a party that’s selected an individual. So the votes lead to a set of values represented in the EP, although not individuals at the electorate’s choosing.

    Compare that with the situation in other Member States where lists are open and the electorate can choose the individual(s) they want, and that’s a better system – in terms of the diversity of views represented, and indeed (so it seems, anecdotally in Brussels) the quality of the MEPs that you get.

    So – as best I can conclude – yes, the UK system does damage the input legitimacy of the EP to a certain extent. But it does not render the EP wholly illegitimate.

  3. Martin Keegan

    Thanks for coming back to this. You say don’t follow my point, but I’m more asking a question. Every time I asked it, you said “let’s ask a different question”. I’m quite happy to look into your questions too, but I find it odd that you won’t answer mine – I think what’s going on is that you’ve not gone back and read the whole discussion from the top.

    The question is: what effect has the near-certain re-election of some MEPs upon the input legitimacy of EU legislation?

    Do you deny that the one undermines the other?

    We both seem to agree that the input legitimacy of EU legislation is a function of all the elements of the EU legislature: Parliament, Council and Commission. You seem to want to refuse to discuss this analytically (in the strict sense of breaking something down into its constituent parts, though obviously to some extent one has to consider the interaction between these three parts). You keep saying “well, what about the effect upon legitimacy of [something other than MEPs’ incentives]”.

  4. To be quite frank I don’t entirely follow the point you’re trying to make here – forgive my ignorance. In short I don’t think the UK is in any sort of position to dish out lessons to the rest of Europe about standards of democracy – after all we have First Past The Post for Westminster and an unelected House of Lords. As a representation of the views of the country it’s rubbish – 1/5 British voted for Labour last time, and they have 55% of the seats in Westminster.

    Now as to the European Union… Ask yourself this: which of the 3 main institutions: EP, Council or Commission has the greatest legitimacy, bearing in mind all the shortcomings you’ve listed? Both the EP and Council have some degree of legitimacy that could be improved in both cases – if on the one hand EP elections were fought on European questions, and on the Council side if Member State Parliaments bothered to scrutinize properly. Following from that, if the other institutions are more legitimate, and they appoint the Commission, then you’re reaching something that should be broadly acceptable…

  5. Martin Keegan

    Jon, I don’t think you get out of it that easily.

    The input legitimacy here is, as you say, some function of the roles of the Commission, Council and Parliament, but you can’t pretend that it’s somehow irreducible and immune to analysis. The Parliament’s contribution is perfectly capable of being discussed even if it is not the whole story.

    My assessment is that the Commission has no democratic mandate whatsoever in respect of the generality of legislative proposals it initiates. I had a question asked in the Parliament about the democratic mandate for two specific measures, and all they condescended to say was that they had the legal authority to pursue the measures, which is to refuse to answer the question. The UK Government has the legal authority to enact a highly regressive income tax or legalise fox hunting, but quite the opposite of a democratic mandate to do so.

    The Council and attendant institutions operate largely unscrutinised by national parliaments (practice varies widely), and sometimes in formal defiance of the scrutiny reserve, and sometimes even in secret. In general, EU members are parliamentary democracies whose executives are not directly electorally accountable, and whose conduct of external relations is among the least reviewable of their activities. I believe it unusual for parties (at least in the UK) to campaign in national elections on their proposed actions in Council.

    So now back to the EU Parliament: what is the effect on the input legitimacy of EU legislation as a whole, given the near-guaranteed status of some members by “virtue” of closed lists? Obviously the UK stands as one of the world’s best examples of a democracy with unelected politicians (I appreciate that you would prefer it were unelected politicians restricted to … err … the upper echelons of the Civil Service). Yet we have the Parliament Acts, and strong norms of deference to the elected chamber. In other countries, however, even this excuse doesn’t obtain. You can point at national law and say it ought to be obeyed because everyone had a chance to influence it through their vote, but you can’t say that as strongly in the case of EU law. The legislative outcome may satisfy an EU-wide majority (the Byzantine legislative procedures must be credited for achieving that), but for the minority, you can’t demand their loyalty in the same way as you can in polities where democratic control is considerably tighter.

  6. Jeremy Hargreaves

    On open lists, I completely agree and I’m proud to say that Liberal Democrats argued in Parliament for this when the legislation was passed in 1997 or 1998, but did not succeed (although if I recall correctly at one stage it was looking reasonably close in the Lords).

    I can’t give a reference but I am pretty certain there was an obligation to have a proportional system before 1999 – as I recall those of us arguing for the move to a PR system, referring to this. It may have been in one of the treaties, but it might just have been another Council declaration.

  7. giacomo

    We have a similar problm here in Italy with our Parliament lists that at present are closed.

    There are mainly two sides in the debate
    pro-closed lists: because open lists rise the costsof electoral campaigns and the ties with organized crime
    against-closed lists: because closed lists are made by party executives which can decide who will be elected and who not (the same reasoning of Jon)

    I think the solution is quite easy: primary elections. The advantages of this solution is that it can be implemented even by single parties without the need of reforming the electoral law and that it doesn’t increae the costs of electoral campaigns.
    About the ties with organized crime I think, at least in Italy, it doen’s change too much if th listes are closed or not, unfortunatly ties are strong anyway…

  8. Sorry, got a bit sidetracked on the legitimacy of MEPs rather than the legitimacy of legislation…

    It’s a bit tricky to answer that point clearly as far as I’m concerned, as the Commission proposed the legislation and it’s then co-decided with the Council. The EP putting its foot down and rejecting something outright is quite rare, while their legitimacy in terms of amending legislation is reasonable – they look at matters in depth, vote detailed reports etc.

    Let’s also pose the question the other way round. Does the EP have a more legitimate legislative role than the Council of the EU does. In my opinion, even with the shortcomings above, yes, it does. MEPs’ job is to legislate on EU issues, and one way or another European Parliament elections should be about EU matters. Conversely few of the Ministers in Council were elected nationally according to their take on EU issues.

    I think you could probably argue that a backbench MP in Westminster has more legislative legitimacy than a MEP, but perhaps that a MEP is better than a local councillor in this regard…?

  9. Martin Keegan

    I think proportionality is grossly overemphasised in the British debate; there are people who have difficulty opening their minds to the proposition that it may not be the sole criterion for assessing electoral systems. In Australia, proportional representation as a term is used contrastively with “preferential”. See the appendix to this AEC publication. Hence my confusion.

    When I wrote about legitimacy, I was referring to the legitimacy of the laws passed by the MEPs, not the MEPs themselves; you don’t really address that in your response.

  10. Even the Swedish (normal) election lists where I think you can strike out candidates or prioritise, but the lists are compiled and numbered by the parties, looks awfully retrograde from a Finnish citizen’s point of view.

    We always vote for an indivudual candidate from a party. According to the votes given to the party (list) in total, the candidates are numbered in accordance with their individual numbers of votes.

    As many are elected from each list as the total number for that list merits proportionally.

    In other words, people actually choose the individuals who are going to represent them.

  11. Agh, Martin, you manage to pose questions that have me trying to think back to undergraduate essays about election systems, and particularly about the Jenkins Report! There’s something called the Rose Index of Proportionality (more in this PDF about the system for MEPs) where – in short – you get a numerical index of what equates to a proportional election system. Hence I put AV, AMS, STV etc. together due to the fact that statistically speaking they give a proportional outcome.

    As for the legitimacy issue: yes, the election system can undermine the legitimacy of the MEPs. Only, to adopt the famous animal farm phrase, all MEPs are equal only some are more equal than others. So you could argue that a Finnish MEP has greater legitimacy than a British one in terms of the election system, but if you look at population you get another answer… 1 German MEP represents 600000 citizens, but 1 Maltese MEP represents only 60000. You even get the same in Westminster where a load of Scottish constituencies have less people in them than urban ones.

    In short – it’s fascinating, but damned complicated!

  12. Martin Keegan

    Hello, thanks for the clarification and sorry for flying off the handle back there. I still can’t believe it, even though I’ve now read the relevant provisions of 2002/772/EC.

    I don’t think we should give in to the slack British usage of “proportional representation” to include preferential systems like STV. Sadly the Council Decision contains this usage as well.

    Anyway, on your substantive point: are you saying that basically some of the MEPs from the UK, albeit they be elected, are in practice not subject to the threat of losing their seats on account of voters’ dislike of their legislative activity?

    Doesn’t this undermine the democratic legitimacy of the laws they pass?

  13. Oh, maybe I should be more concrete about it: I don’t just make things up about European politics. I knew there were rules determining proportionality, I recall someone mentioning it was in the EP internal rules, so I stuck it in.

    The reason I write about EU politics more than anything else is because I work with EU politics all day and every day and while, like any blogger, I might not have the time to reference everything I write (and of course plenty of people disagree with my analysis) things should be broadly accurate factually. Plus if there are errors or corrections I’m always happy to take those on board.

  14. Ireland uses STV for its elections and hence it has no problem right from 1979 and the first direct elections to the EP.

    I’ve just looked into the election rules and things are much more concrete than I thought (I was writing the original post while on the train yesterday so didn’t have time to check). The rules are actually from a 2002 Council Decision under Article 190 of the Treaty that election systems have to be proportional. The EP fact sheet about it is here and there’s more about it at Wikipedia.

    So, in short, if the UK wanted to go back to first past the post it would be in contravention of EC law and could be fined by the European Court of Justice.

  15. Martin Keegan

    I’d love to see a source for the claim that the EU Parliament’s internal rules require proportional representation. You just made that up, right? How could it be enforced? How was the UK compliant before the closed list system was introduced? How is the Republic of Ireland compliant now?

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