Brexit contingency planning revives old issue of MEP apportionment

Synopsis: European political scientists and parliamentarians are struggling to address the impending vacancy of the UK’s 73 seats in the European Parliament. One proposal entails the establishment of a supranational constituency that would provide for European voters to select at-large candidates regardless of residency of both the voters and the candidates. This article examines the pros, cons, and necessary structural changes of such a plan.

By Jared Angle

With the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union fast approaching, European political scientists and parliamentarians are struggling to address the impending vacancy of the country’s 73 seats in the European Parliament.

At the conclusion of the two-year transition period tied to Article 50 procedures, the supranational legislative body will see its membership drop from 751 to 678 unless European leaders can reach an agreement on the fate of those seats. Several MEPs and national politicians have floated proposals to reallocate seats to address issues of proportional representation and European unity.

One such proposal, which has alternatively generated enthusiasm and strong skepticism along party lines within the European Parliament, entails the establishment of a supranational constituency that would provide for European voters to select at-large candidates regardless of residency of both the voters and the candidates.

This idea was originally floated in 2011 by then-MEP Andrew Duff (ALDE–UK), but it failed to gain traction beyond initial consideration by the Constitutional Affairs Committee.[1] However, the Italian government reintroduced the idea before the European Council in April 2017, and French president Emmanuel Macron gave the proposal renewed impetus in September 2017, with French officials arguing that a transnational list could “increase the visibility of trans-European parties” and “send a message of unity and confidence” in European integration.[2]

A good idea…

The reasoning behind the French and Italian push for at-large parliamentary seats holds considerable merit. Although French officials cite the increase exposure that the European Parliament’s transnational political groups, such as the EPP or S&D, would receive, individual candidates with niche political positions would likewise benefit from the ability to attract votes from a wider pool of voters than would otherwise be available in their constituency.

For example, candidates strongly focused on singular issues, such as consumer protection, environmental regulation, internet privacy, human rights, or financial sector reform would be able to appeal to European voters who identify with their chosen issue, rather than having to contend with the fact that their party affiliation may not align with the preferences of the majority of voters in their local constituency.

…with numerous disadvantages

However, a significant number of problems could overshadow the implementation of such a voting list.

Foremost among these issues is the fact that ballots would become considerably more complicated. While European voters currently select from a list of candidates within their national or local constituency, the addition several dozen more seats in an at-large format could potentially add hundreds of candidates to the ballot. While these voters may be very familiar with the candidates running for their local parliamentary seat, they are likely to be unfamiliar with the majority of at-large candidates.

As such, they might choose to vote along party lines regardless of their knowledge of the individual candidates, or they may choose to vote at random or abstain entirely. The latter two scenarios are problematic because they could lead to the majority of voters being frustrated by the prospect of being governed by MEPs with whom they do not identify and whom were selected by a minority of eligible voters.

Another criticism arises from the fact that, unlike the current cohort of MEPs who were selected by members of their constituencies, MEPs elected from a pan-EU list would lack accountability to any specific constituency, fueling concerns of democratic deficit.[3] Furthermore, the notion that a pan-EU list could potentially be used to stack the European Parliament with additional MEPs from larger member states has blunted Central and Eastern European enthusiasm for the proposal.

Jennifer Rankin of The Guardian writes that “Socialist and Liberal MEPs largely back the plans, although MEPs from some small and medium-sized countries … [fear] that they would be dominated by France and Germany.”[4] Centre-right political groups such as the EPP have also come out in opposition of the proposal, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy both expressing skepticism.[5]

The idea of “stacking” the European Parliament with MEPs from a particular member state is not without precedent when one examines the electoral history of other countries, especially where municipal elections in the United States are concerned.

Although legislation and court rulings in the second half of the 20th century have eliminated legal segregation on the basis of race, most cities in the United States remain segregated due for socioeconomic reasons, with the geographic distributions of racial minorities remaining relatively static. Many of these cities are divided into single-member districts, with primarily white neighborhoods electing white councilmembers and minority neighborhoods electing minority councilmembers. However, some cities maintain at-large districts in addition to single-member districts, and in many cases, these seats go to white candidates, giving white residents disproportionately better representation than minority residents.

In the case of the European Union, residents of small and economically disadvantaged countries may fear that at-large seats will be stacked with an excessive number of candidates from a particular member state, giving that state disproportional influence over the European Union’s legislative process. For example, Germany could secure a significant share of at-large seats and exert additional pressure on countries to which it has recently been at odds with for economic or political reasons, such as Greece (for the former reason) or Poland (for the latter).

Smaller parties also worry that the creation of an at-large constituency could give larger political groups, such as the EPP and the S&D, an undue advantage over smaller blocs such as the Greens/EFA or GUE/NGL.[6]

Significant structural changes would be necessary

Various criticism aside, reallocating seats in the European Parliament will likely prove to be a daunting task due to political realities and requirements set forth in the European Union’s treaty framework.

Per Article 14 TEU, no member state can have less than 6 seats nor more than 96 seats under the “degressive proportionality” principle; the European Union’s smallest member states, such as Estonia and Luxembourg, lie at the lower threshold, while Germany lies at the upper threshold.[7]

One proposal is to leave the European Parliament’s maximum cap of 751 seats in place while reducing the size of the chamber to 700 members, leaving 22 of the United Kingdom’s 73 seats to be redistributed among member states falling between the 6-MEP and 96-MEP thresholds and reserving the remaining 51 seats as placeholders, with the potential for these seats to be allocated to future member states (such as the former Yugoslavian nations which are in pre-accession status, or countries such as Norway and Iceland, should they reverse their earlier decisions to decline EU membership) or reopened as at-large seats.[8]

Veteran MEP Elmar Brok (EPP–DE) supports this potential structure, which could potentially correct imbalances in representation among the mid-sized member states and lay the groundwork for future accession rounds.[9]

Of course, the issue of where these imbalances exist and how they can be corrected is a contentious topic.

Any proposal to revise MEP allotments in the European Parliament would require treaty change and the unanimous consent of the member states in the European Council, but reaching a consensus is likely to be easier said than done.[10] MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel (ECR–DE) views Macron’s proposal to retain the European Parliament’s current size and reallocate 73 British seats to a supranational list as an “aloof elite project,” arguing that such changes to the European Parliament’s current structure would broaden the divide between the member states and encourage more to follow London’s example.[11]

Other methods of handling the vacant seats would also be considerably complicated.

Eliminating all 73 of the United Kingdom’s parliamentary seats, rather than reallocating 22 and keeping 51 empty, would worsen imbalances in terms of proportional representation in the European Parliament, while reallocating these seats to the remaining member states while keeping the 96-member cap would lead to overrepresentation for small states.[12]

One possible solution would be to devise a mathematical formula to reapportion all 751 seats among the member states, with the 96-member upper limit being dropped. While this would prove deeply unpopular with member states concerned about German dominance over the legislative chamber, revising the limit is necessary if each member state is to reach a semblance of equally proportional representation in terms of constituents per MEP.

Most of these reallocated seats should go to the middle-population countries. As it currently stands, Germany cannot have any more MEPs, despite the fact that it is already among the most thinly spread of the member states, with upwards of 800,000 constituents per MEP. Only the United Kingdom and France have a larger average constituency.

By granting some of the United Kingdom’s vacated seats to countries such as France and Italy, these countries could edge closer to more proportionally represented member states such as Sweden or the Czech Republic, which have around half a million constituents per MEP.

However, allocating more seats to the European Union’s post-2004 enlargement countries might improve European unity by giving these member states greater willingness to earnestly engage with the European process due to a perception of fairer representation. The smallest states, such as Estonia and Luxembourg, should not receive additional seats because they are already considerably overrepresented in terms of constituents per MEP.

What lies in store for the remaining 51 seats?

While future enlargement is purely speculative, the existing seat allocations based on current population sizes would allow the proposed 51 post-expansion seats, as proposed by MEP Brok, to neatly accommodate several former and future candidates for accession.

Assuming that Iceland does not intend to join the European Union but Norway and the Balkan states do opt to join, Norway could hypothetically receive 13 seats (akin to neighboring Finland), Bosnia and Herzegovina could receive 11 seats (falling between Lithuania and Croatia), Kosovo could receive 7 seats (just below Latvia), Montenegro could receive 6 seats (in close company with Luxembourg), and Serbia could receive 14 seats (falling between Denmark and Austria).[13]

In short, the question of MEP apportionment is complicated and controversial, but Europe will find a way to make it work as it has in previous decades.

[1] Maïa de la Baume, “MEPs debate who inherits British seats,” Politico Europe, April 12, 2017.

[2] Anne-Sylvaine Chassany and James Politi, “Macron backs proposal for cohort of pan-EU MEPs,” Financial Times, September 4, 2017.

[3] Jennifer Rankin, “UK’s vacated European parliament seats may go to EU-wide candidates,” The Guardian, September 11, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adam Fleming, “Brexit: MEPs try to work out life after the UK leaves,” British Broadcasting Corporation, July 13, 2017.

[7] “MEPs want to reduce the size of the European Parliament,” European Parliament (Press Release), September 12, 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Martin Banks, “Mixed response to radical proposals to cut the number of European parliament seats after Brexit,” The Parliament Magazine, September 15, 2017.

[10] Robert Kalcik and Guntram Wolff, “Is Brexit an opportunity to reform the European Parliament,” Breugel, Policy Contribution Issue No. 2, 2017.

[11] Martin Banks, “Mixed response to radical proposals to cut the number of European parliament seats after Brexit,” The Parliament Magazine, September 15, 2017.

[12] Maïa de la Baume, “MEPs debate who inherits British seats,” Politico Europe, April 12, 2017.

[13] Figures calculated based on population data for 2016. World Bank, World Development Indicators, accessed September 23, 2017.

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