Observing European Elections

By Floudas, Demetrius Andreas | Contemporary Review, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Observing European Elections


Floudas, Demetrius Andreas, Contemporary Review


The European Parliament in Strasbourg is one of the most important institutions of the European Union, not the least because it ensures a measure of democratic representation and approval within the workings of the Union. Its members are elected every five years, in a process taking place simultaneously throughout Europe.

The citizens of the Union elect their representatives to the European Parliament in accordance with the electoral systems in force in their individual countries. There is no particular European-wide electoral system used specifically for the occasion, despite the fact that this contravenes directly Article 138(3) EC and has been a constant demand of the Parliament itself since 1960. Article 138(3) EC stipulates that 'The European Parliament shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States. The Council shall [ . . . ] lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.'

Nevertheless, almost 40 years after the Treaty of Rome, the Council still has not introduced a uniform system throughout Europe but has instead regulated only the issues of the common dates for the elections and the incompatibilities of membership of the Parliament. Consequently, 14 Member States apply diverse systems that cover the broad spectrum of proportional representation whilst one - the United Kingdom - uses majority voting. In the 1994 elections, with twelve countries as members at the time, five of them (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Ireland, United Kingdom) were divided into constituencies, whilst in the other seven each party's candidates ran in a single list which covered the whole country. Such differing national practices provide for surprising disparities between the proportion of the electorate represented by each MEP, with an extreme example, that of the German member who needs 307,000 votes in his favour to gain his seat and of his counterpart in Luxembourg who can enjoy the same privileges by persuading only 32,000 of his countrymen (figures relating to the previous composition of the assembly).

The number of seats in the Parliament was increased at the Edinburgh summit in 1992 in order to take into consideration the German reunification and the imminent accession of new states to the Union. The currently elected Parliament sits with 624 members instead of the old 518. The Germans dominate in numbers with their 99 representatives, with France, Italy and the UK having 87 each. Spain has 64 seats and the Netherlands have gained 6 to reach 31. Belgium, Greece and Portugal saw their national representations increase by one to 25, whilst the 3 smaller countries Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg did not benefit from the redistribution, remaining in their old numbers of 16, 15 and 6 respectively. The new entrants were also allocated seats and thus the European Parliament now sits with 21 Swedes, 20 Austrians and 16 Finns in its ranks. On the basis of numbers of MEPs in proportion to their population, the four large countries are underrepresented whilst the smaller ones have in fact more than they would numerically deserve, if representation was based exactly on relative population size. Indeed, it is sometimes pointed out by bored Eurocrats resident in Luxembourg, that, if Parliament seats were allocated in exact proportion to the countries' populations, the single remaining Luxembourgeois representative would end up with a fractional appointment!

In June 1994, the fourth instance since 1979 that the Europeans voted for the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage, the electorate in the twelve Member States was for the first time not divided along strict nationality lines. In order to reinforce the psychological significance of the 'citizenship of the Union', the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (TEU) provides that 'Every citizen of the Union residing in a Member State of which he is not a national shall have the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament in the Member State in which he resides, under the same conditions as nationals of that State'. …

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