Frequently Asked Questions on TransNational Lists (TNL)

, by Christian Beck

Frequently Asked Questions on TransNational Lists (TNL)

Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on new EU electoral law, including transnational lists. Below is a list of FAQs on transnational lists, and what they would mean for Europe.

Why do we need TNL?

We need them to make European elections truly European. EU elections are effectively 27 national elections in national constituencies with lists of people from the same countries, so no wonder they neglect EU topics and often just express dissatisfaction with the national government instead of discussing European answers for European problems. Transnational lists could give EU citizens a second vote for an additional EU-wide constituency where each list would have candidates from all over the EU and need to explain to all EU citizens at once why they have the best program for Europe.

We need them to hold candidates for the EU top jobs accountable during election campaigns instead of having EU governments distribute EU the top jobs to surprise candidates after elections. The lack of clarity before elections, who are the candidates for EU top jobs, gives rise to badmouthing about the EU being run by “unelected bureaucrats”. TNL would instead collect each parties’ candidates for top jobs and thereby ensure that journalists and voters can hold them accountable by asking them for their plans and discussing them publicly for weeks. Voters would finally know the Commission president and Commissioners before elections, could choose between them and actually elect them into office, similarly to the national level.

But do we not have enough with the lead-candidate system (Spitzenkandidaten) to provide a European debate?

The lead-candidate system, the agreement that each EU political party (family) elects one lead-candidate for the position of Commission president, can help to foster European debate. Yet the last EU elections in 2019 brutally exposed the fact that if an EU party congress elects Manfred Weber as lead-candidate, it remains too easy that the same party leaders agree to propose Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president instead. National parties just nearly never explained to their voters who the EU lead-candidates were. They focused on their national candidates only, because only they are on the ballot. Only when each citizen finds lead-candidates on top of TNL on their ballot, parties will much more likely explain who those candidates are. A candidate with an EU-wide popular mandate is not easily brushed aside.

But no federal system has transnational lists?

True, TNL are still needed to balance the extreme role for the member states in deciding the top jobs, the EU Commission, that no other federal system has. If in Germany the 16 Länder (regions) governments would decide each one Member of the federal government, it would be much less clear who is the candidate for Chancellor for a party. The strong role of federal parties in federal systems is because parliament alone elects a government, federal parties can effectively negotiate a coalition and elect them into power. As long as the Spanish Prime Minister negotiates the post of Commission president with the German Chancellor and the French president, instead of the leaders of the EU level parties, we need transnational lists to make EU top jobs a European instead of a national matter. To give the power for electing the top jobs to the European Parliament alone, to take away the right of each EU government to propose a Commissioner, it would need a change of the EU treaty. Introducing TNL can be done without treaty change (although all Member State governments have to agree and national parliaments to ratify).

But are MEPs from TNL not missing a constituency to be close to voters?

The proposed reform would introduce 28 seats in addition to the 705 that would get elected the same way as we already know. The current Parliament has 705, the EU treaties allow for maximum 751, leaving 46 free. 28 seats are less and nearly exactly the number of Commissioners. Parties like Greens/EFA and the Left can hope to just get their lead candidates elected, perhaps one more. Given that parties would most likely send candidates already known to a wider public, these would all be candidates for becoming group leaders in the European Parliament, Commission president or Commissioners. Those holding such top jobs already now have less time to visit a constituency and hold a lot of responsibility towards all EU citizens, beyond their own constituencies. TNL would bring leading EU politicians on eye level with the amount of voters they do politics for: EU-wide. At the same time, the new Electoral law allows all candidates on TNL to also run on national or regional lists, allowing for the same level of scrutiny in a constituency as today.

But if you want citizens to decide the Commission president, why not have direct elections for Commission president?

A presidential system does not fit with European diversity and complexity. The European Parliament currently has more than 180 different political parties. To reduce the choice down to two persons will not work. Besides, electing an EU president directly raises high expectations for this one person to steer EU politics. With all necessities to compromise not only between political groups in Parliament but also between Member States in Council, such expectations would have to be deeply disappointed. A direct election would be a false promise from the start. TNL gives many more options and each list represents the diversity of national backgrounds. The EU-wide constituency for transnational lists with only 28 seats comes down to a comparison of only a few people while allowing a candidate from each member state, so a very European compromise between US presidential elections and European diversity.

Will TNL not favour big member states only?

No, the Electoral law proposed has a strong rule guaranteeing 2/3 of all seats on the lists for small and medium countries. The rule Article 15 (9) divides the lists in sections of 3 slots, (places 1-3, 4-6, …) and the member states into 3 groups of A large member states (currently from Germany to Poland), B medium (from Romania to Bulgaria) and C small (from Denmark to Malta). Each section of 3 slots (e.g. places 1-3) must include candidates from A, B and C. No list can put candidates e.g. from Germany, France and Italy on the first 3, not even on the first 6 seats. Even without such a strong rule, Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg as first successful lead-candidate showed that as long as you speak a big member state’s languages, you can still be successful there as well.

Will TNL favour populists and the political extremes?

No, this is very unlikely, since TNL and their programmes must convince voters across member states while populists use stereotypes that differ strongly from country to country. The Polish PiS hates Putin, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Salvini’s Lega took Putin’s money and defended him. Northern Populists want the EU to redistribute less money, Southern and Eastern Populists want more EU money. TNL would expose the inner contradictions of Populists much better than the current system. TNL favour instead parties that offer convincing answers to all EU citizens, whatever the political direction might be.

Why TNL if no reform is necessary, nothing is broken that needs fixing?

UK voting Brexit because the EU feels like non-democratic external control, right-wing populists winning some of the biggest Member States like Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France ahead of En Marche, the Lega in Italy with winning more seats than PD and FI combined, show the dangerous lack of trust in pro-European forces of any direction. The badmouthing of the EU as run by unelected bureaucrats is too easy with most citizens not feeling like they elected those in power in EU institutions. The lack of genuine European debate and competition in EU elections and the lack of connection to the decision on EU top jobs after elections leads to the degradation of EU elections as second or third order national elections. It is too dangerous not to use the potential of truely European elections to legitimise those in power and thereby the EU political system.

But people are not interested in something like transnational lists!

False. On the online platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe, Democracy is the topic with most ideas submitted, many also on the question of European elections and in favour of transnational lists. The EU Citizens Panel on Democracy and Values, 200 randomly selected citizens roughly representative for the EU population at large, recommended transnational lists. The European Youth Event 2021 including 10.000 participants, included transnational lists in its top 20 recommendations.

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