Squaring the Verhofstadt triangle

MEP Guy Verhofstadt has been an adamant promoter of transnational lists for European elections. © Based on European Union 2018.

The European Parliament is currently discussing a reform of the EU's electoral law. In this debate, many pro-European voices have promoted the creation of transnational lists, among them MEP Guy Verhofstadt. Real solution to strengthen the Union or quick-fix avoiding a more thorough reform?

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the European continent as a whole has been going through particularly trying times. Europe’s botched attempt at a coherent, EU-wide public response has, among others, underlined the need for improved European governance and, finally, for a real European government.

Europeanising European elections

In this light of needed institutional progress, we are also living in fascinating times, as 2021 is becoming the scene for two major, mostly behind-the-scenes discussions: the reform of European political parties[1] and of the European electoral law.[2] Both topics are cornerstones of the interaction between citizens and their political system and, as such, hold the promise to reshape and finally strengthen our European democracy.

These discussions have begun as they always do: with exchanges in and reports by the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO). AFCO met on 17 March to discuss the Regulation on the statute and funding of European political parties, and on 13 April for a hearing on the reform of the electoral law.

Unsurprisingly, a recurring point of discussion (and, as it turns out, of contention) was the proposed creation of “transnational lists” (TNLs) or “pan-European constituency”. The idea is not new but has gained new momentum in the run-up to the 2019 European elections.[3] In a nutshell, the current proposal is to provide citizens with a second ballot during European elections to vote for an EU-wide list of candidates; this proportional vote would fill somewhere between 25 seats and half of the European Parliament, depending on the proposal.[4]

An adamant defender of these transnational lists has been Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister, MEP, and long-time leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament before the creation of Renew Europe. There is no doubt that Mr. Verhofstadt’s engagement in favour of a stronger, more integrated, and even federal Europe, is praise-worthy. Over close to twelve years as a European representative, he has pushed for a strengthened Parliament, publicly battled with nationalists and Brexiteers, and co-founded the Spinelli Group advocating the federalisation of Europe.

Given these federalist credentials, Mr. Verhofstadt’s continued support for transnational lists is all the more surprising, since the system is not used by a single federal or “multi-level” political system in the world.[5]

The Verhofstadt triangle

In his intervention, Mr. Verhofstadt presented his “firm belief that the future of European democracy resides in a triangle”, composed of transnational lists, European political parties, and spitzenkandidaten. He explained his support arguing that “there has to be a transnational challenge in a transnational democracy. That’s the case in the United States when you elect your President […] We don’t have such a challenge, and that’s the problem.”

As a result of the introduction of transnational lists, “European political parties will be obliged to be real European parties if you have transnational lists, because they are going to put the candidates on this transnational list. They will be responsible for the composition of that transnational list.” Topping it all off is the figure of the spitzenkandidat, leading the transnational lists, who will provide “a justification, a real challenge, to vote for this transnational list: you vote for your spitzenkandidat who will have the lead position of the executive in the European Union.”

Mr Verhofstadt’s vision of a triangle where “the spitzenkandidat strengthens the transnational list, transnational lists strengthen European political parties, European political parties strengthen transnational lists and spitzenkandidat”, on the surface, seems engaging and sure of success. It’s also quite easy: introduce transnational lists with spitzenkandidaten at their top and, basically, it all flows down nicely from there on.

Challenging the common wisdom

Unfortunately, the argument suffers from three major problems,[6] starting with the ill-advised comparison with the United States. Indeed, the United States does have the equivalent of a “transnational challenge” in the form of its presidential election. However, European elections are not an election for the EU’s executive, but for its legislature; they are also not an election for a single candidate, but for a political party and its list of candidates. Given this, more appropriate comparisons would be with federal parliamentary democracies such as Germany, Austria, Canada, Australia, or South Africa. In all these systems, citizens vote, at least in part, for party lists in the lower house, and control of the lower house leads to control of the government — which is what the spitzenkandidat system is supposed to ensure.

The second problem is that no federal system uses country-wide lists for the election of its legislature. Most elections are instead carried out at a local level (as the size of the lower house permits), either using single-representative electoral districts or through regional/State party lists. Most notably, Germany — a standard-bearer of federalism in Europe — elects roughly half of the Bundestag through a direct vote for a local candidate, and the other half via a vote for State (Land) party lists. In this sense, Ms. Merkel was never elected Chancellor by leading a Germany-wide list of candidates, but instead by leading a party/coalition controlling a majority of the Bundestag.

While the United States does have a common U.S.-wide election for its President, it does not have one for the House of Representatives, which is elected only from local electoral districts, themselves subdivisions of U.S. States. This being said, the election of a Prime Minister or Chancellor in a federal parliamentary democracy is no less of a “transnational challenge” than the election of a U.S. President: in both cases, it is clear who is running, and citizens know exactly who their vote supports.

The third and final problem is the supposed direct link between the existence of transnational lists and the strengthening of European parties: by presenting a Europe-wide list of candidates, European parties would suddenly become “real” political parties. This is problematic in a number of ways. First of all, the mere existence of TNLs will not, in and of itself, remove crucial obstacles for the functioning of European parties, first and foremost the fact that they are not allowed to financially support their national member parties or run campaigns on the ground.

Secondly, it will not change the current structure of European parties which, unlike national parties, are by and large associations of national parties, and not associations of citizens. This means that the choice of the transnational list and of the spitzenkandidat is, in reality, made by national member party representatives — which merely entrenches the power of national parties in European politics. This is reflected in political groups in the European Parliament, where group presidents are almost systematically the leader of the group’s largest national delegation.[7]

Thirdly, the miracle empowerment of European parties runs against observed evidence from the spitzenkandidat experiments in 2014 and 2019. In their own way, spitzenkandidaten are already common candidates of European political parties — candidates that citizens indirectly supported when they voted for their national parties. Transnational lists of one candidate. The only difference being that the vote was indirect, instead of procuring citizens with a second, direct vote.[8]

Despite this, it would be hard to argue that European parties have gained any visibility through these elections. Campaigns remained squarely in the hands of national parties, citizens are still oblivious to the existence of European parties, and national parties did not make any effort to broadcast their supposed champion. ALDE itself did not present a spitzenkandidat in 2019, but instead a “Team Europe” of seven people which I challenge European citizens to name.

Reforming the elephant in the room

So while we may see European citizens become slightly more acquainted with European parties as a result of transnational lists, it is safe to say that, without a prior strengthening of European parties, campaigns will remain national and citizens will simply vote for the European party their national party tells them to.

The underlining point is that legislative elections can only work as “transnational challenges” in parliamentary democracies through the presence and relevance of nationwide political parties –in the case of the EU, Europe-wide political parties. European parties must therefore be squarely at the centre of European elections, and citizens must vote directly for them, and not for national parties: they must lead European electoral campaigns, approve the candidates, contribute to electoral expenses, have their logo on the ballot, be the ones featured in the results,[9] and get reimbursements for electoral expenses if applicable.

But — and this is where the logic reverses itself — if, via a proper reform of European parties and of the European electoral law, we do indeed ensure that European parties can properly act at the European level, are allowed to engage with citizens, are properly funded, and lead European campaigns, then why do we need transnational lists in the first place?

Germany, Austria, Australia and others have their own “transnational challenge” in the form of their parliamentary elections, where all citizens, across the country, vote on a mostly local basis for the same political parties and programmes; would their elections improve with a second vote for a cross-country constituency?

The inconsistency of the reasoning becomes apparent: transnational lists cannot truly make these elections European for as long as national parties control both electoral campaigns and European parties, which must be profoundly reformed. But once these are reformed, transnational lists do not provide any improvement and, if anything, simply serve to move MEPs even further away from citizens.

Instead, a more citizen-minded reform of the electoral law could follow the example of Germany, with half of the European Parliament elected from single-representative districts, and the other half on Member State-wide lists — provided all of them run under the exclusive banner of European political parties. Not so unreasonable for European elections.[10]

With this system, the spitzenkandidaten would not need to be on a particular list, since all European citizens would directly vote for the candidates and parties that endorse them: a vote for a European party would be a vote for this party’s spitzenkandidat. Clear, coherent, and supported by existing best practices.

Why all the support for transnational lists?

Whether or not we agree on the appropriateness of transnational lists, we see that the transformation of European parties into true political parties able to act is an absolute prerequisite. Why isn’t this already the case? European parties have a complex history, but they have received public funding since 2004, and had their own legal status since 2014, which was amended in 2018 and 2019.

Every single time, pro-European parties have been rapporteurs for these files,[11] and have controlled a comfortable majority both in the AFCO Committee and in the European Parliament as a whole.[12] Yet, while progress has been made, European parties still fall far short of the expected role of “political parties at European level”, as they are called in European treaties, and it is doubtful that the 2021 review will achieve nearly enough progress to make them relevant.[13]

In this light, the support that transnational lists enjoy in moderately pro-European political circles seems to stem less from a genuine desire for the creation of a true pan-European political union, than as a compromise solution that allows progressive forces to claim a successful reform without challenging the status quo enshrining national parties as the continued centres of power across Europe.

For all its branding appeal and simplicity, the Verhofstadt triangle is, therefore, at best, a solution not well thought-through and not relying on federal best practices or past European experiments, and, at worst, a trick to stifle the real reform needed in Europe: the creation of European parties at least on par with national parties and able to truly represent citizens.

With the on-going review of the Regulation on European parties, pro-European forces in the European Parliament have one more chance to put their money where their mouth is. They have the numbers to adopt a bold reform and finally build the party system European citizens need. Only then, moving away from the Verhofstadt triangle and inspired by institutions that have ensured the development of democracy at the national level, European politics may finally come full circle.

Image credits: © European Union 2018 — European Parliament

[1] Regulation (EU, EURATOM) No 1141/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2014 on the statute and funding of European political parties and European political foundations.

[2] Act concerning the election of the members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage, annexed to Council Decision 76/787/ECSC, EEC, Euratom of 20 September 1976

[3] President Macron mentioned transnational lists as early as his Sorbonne address of September 2017 (in French, English, and summarised here) and later repeatedly made calls in this direction, along with his party’s Renew Europe list.

[4] A variation of this proposal only gives European citizens a single vote for national parties, but uses this vote to simulate a virtual second vote, by virtue of national parties’ affiliation to European parties or political groups in the European Parliament. For instance, a German citizen casting his ballot for the CDU/CSU would vote directly for the coalition’s list in Germany, and indirectly for the Europe-wide list of the European People’s Party that the CDU/CSU belongs to. Both variations have their own shortcomings.

[5] Austria’s lower house does have candidates elected directly at the federal level, but only as a rounding mechanism, not through a separate vote. Citizens vote for a party list at the local level; votes unaccounted for after a first tally lead to candidates drawn from State-level lists, and votes unaccounted for after this second tally lead to candidates drawn from federal-level lists. The political parties are the same at all levels and their structure is fully integrated across levels.

[6] For a more in-depth discussion of the consequences of transnational lists, see https://eudemocracy.eu/not-transnational-lists-transnational-parties

[7] For a comparison of national delegations and group leaders, see https://europeanconstitution.eu/not-transnational-lists-transnational-parties#footnote15

[8] At any rate, the two votes are very likely to be redundant, since voters can be expected to cast their ballot for the same European party that their national party is a member of. A single vote, either for a national or European party, would provide the same information and result.

[9] For the results of the 2019 European elections from the perspective of European political parties, see https://eudemocracy.eu/european-elections-as-you-ve-never-seen-them-before

[10] For a more detailed proposal of a unified electoral system for the European Union, see https://eudemocracy.eu/adopting-the-improved-bundestag-system

[11] 2014: Marietta Giannakou (EPP); 2018: Mercedes Bresso (PES), Rainer Wieland (EPP); 2019: Mercedes Bresso (PES), Rainer Wieland (EPP); 2021: Rainer Wieland (EPP), Charles Goerens (ALDE)

[12] The EPP, S&D, ALDE/Renew Europe, Greens/EFA, and GUE-NGL/The Left groups made up 77% of the European Parliament in 2014–2019, 74% following the 2019 elections, and over 75% since Brexit.

[13] International IDEA, Reconnecting European Political Parties with European Union Citizens, Discussion Paper 6/2018, https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/reconnecting-european-political-parties-with-european-union-citizens.pdf#page=18