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While the Parliament may be European, the electoral laws are not


La Voce.info, Italy

24 May 2019, Updated: 24 May 2019

While the Parliament may be European, the electoral laws are notCC-BY 2.0. Guilhem Vellut/Flickr

The European Parliament elections will take place on 26 May, with rules varying from country to country. Is this simply respect for national traditions and identity, or discrimination between citizens? Whatever the case, it’s a situation which fails to guarantee equal political rights.


Few common rules and many differences

What would Italians think if in the next general election each of the twenty regions was free to choose its own electoral system, while respecting a handful of vague common criteria? Probably the last thing they’d be thinking is that it’s a nice way to respect regional diversity; rather, it would more likely seem a chaotic and potentially unfair system. Yet, this is precisely the situation European citizens have found themselves in since 1979. Despite the fact that the Maastricht Treaty contained the wish for a European electoral law, the choice was made in 1997 (with the Amsterdam Treaty) to limit this to a rather vague point concerning uniformity of standards. Even then, the Council, which had to vote unanimously for the Parliament’s proposal, didn’t manage to reach an agreement. Since then, nothing much has changed. There are just three common principles: a tiny number, given the infinite technicalities of electoral laws. Moreover, according the the treaties and the subsequent directives, these principles only affect (1) the eligibility and the right to vote, which can be exercised by European citizens residing abroad in other European countries; (2) incompatibilities between holding office in the European Parliament and holding other offices, including – and the list is very long – member of national government, member of the Commission, judge, attorney general or chancellor of the Court of Justice, member of the Court of Auditors, and member of national parliament; (3) a call for proportionality in the allocation of seats among the lists participating in the election.

In contrast to these three points of commonality, the points of difference are far more numerous. Above all, the thresholds for active and passive electorates: only Italy and Greece have limited candidacy to those aged 25 and over. This is seven years older than the age of majority (18), which is the threshold in the majority of member states (together with 21 and 23). Is it just a coincidence that it’s Italy and Greece, with their demographic timebombs, who close the door on the young?

It’s therefore incomprehensible that the European Union would put so much effort into equal treatment on numerous economic fronts (gender equality, for example, and quite rightly), but has never been bothered establishing common rules for the political rights of its youngest citizens. Moreover, thanks to the reciprocity clauses, a 23 year-old Italian citizen residing in France would not be allowed on an Italian electoral list, but would be eligible for candidacy on a French list. A real paradox.

Secondly, the common form of election, modeled on the proportional representation, differs from country to country via national provisions. In the majority of countries, including Italy, it is possible to express at least one preference. In the case of Italy, the maximum number of preferences is three, with voters obligated to vote for candidates of opposite genders when more than one preference is expressed. In nine member states (including Germany, Spain, France and Britain), the lists are closed (no preferential voting). In Luxembourg, voters may choose candidates on opposing lists, while in Sweden it is possible to add names to lists or remove them. In Malta, Ireland and Northern Ireland there is the so-called single transferable vote, whereby the voter lists candidates in order of preference. Thirteen countries, including Germany and Britain, don’t apply electoral thresholds. On the other hand, the recommended maximum value (5 percent) is applied in nine countries, including France (in certain constituencies). In Italy, since 2009, there is a threshold of 4 percent.

However, starting with the 2024 European elections, all member states will have to get implement a new regulation (from 2018) which requires a minimum threshold between 2 and 5 percent for constituencies of more than 35 seats. For example, Germany, composed of a single electoral constituency, will have to introduce a minimum threshold of 2 percent.

In four member states (Belgium, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Greece), voting is formally compulsory (in theory at least, abstainers should face a fine). In Italy, while article 48 of the constitution states that voting is a civic duty, there are no consequences for abstention.

Even when it comes to the date of the election, there is no unity: while the majority of member states will vote on Sunday 26 May, in certain countries the elections will be held from Thursday 23 May (or even earlier, in the case of early voting, for example by post).

Discrimination between European voters

It’s no secret that many voters in Europe don’t show much interest in the European elections. In 2014, the turnout in Italy was a little over 57 percent, dropping further since the previous European election (the turnout for the 2018 general election, on the other hand, was 73 percent). The electoral campaign, for many political parties, seems more focused on national than European issues, suggesting that politicians are more concerned with domestic electoral dynamics than actively participating in developments within the European institutions. In conclusion, the possibility of selecting more or less capable politicians and guaranteeing equal treatment to all voters is severely compromised by the inability of the EU itself (the Council especially) to adopt common rules, limiting itself to small adjustments at the national level. Here, precisely, is one of the many commitments that Europe should perhaps undertake on the part of its citizens. However, even in the absence of any common European initiative, Italy needs to reform its electoral law (law 18 from 1979), the oldest in force, at least when it comes to the minimum age for candidacy, unless it likes the idea of a total absence of young people among its representatives.

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