The European Union is facing one of the most challenging moments in its recent history. While the struggle for a solution to the common challenge of migration and refugees continues, the spectre of debt, recession and high unemployment continues to haunt the countries of the southern Eurozone, with the likelihood high of another round of acrimonious negotiations between creditor and debtor countries in the near future. These crises have been toxic for public perception of the EU across the union, with trust in institutions such as the European Parliament declining to record lows in recent years (though they somewhat recovered in 2015). One common element among both of these crises is the question of whether the EU has any democratic legitimacy when making key decisions which appear to produce winners and losers among nation states. The EU’s (lack of) legitimacy as a democratic body is, of course, a classic problem in EU studies which has plagued the organisation since its inception.
A recurring theme in this debate is the failure of the European Parliament, the EU’s only directly elected institution, to establish itself in the minds of the European public as a legitimate locus of power. One of the major reasons put forth for this lack of legitimacy is the status of European Parliament elections as “second order”, being treated as a minor engagement in ongoing national political battles, rather than a major event in its own right. The lack of interest in the event is reflected by the continuously declining turnout witnessed in these elections, which stood at just over 42 per cent in the most recent poll in 2014.
In a recent study, we examine a proposal that may go some way toward addressing this problem: the ‘transnationalisation’ of European Parliament elections, which would involve allowing voters to vote for parties in any EU member state when they went to the polls (at least for a portion of seats in the parliament itself). Such a proposal could play a role in helping European elections to break free from the clutches of national politics: in particular, when campaigning, national parties would have to adjust their electoral offer to both take account of the increased competition for their ‘national’ vote and also to potentially address voters in other countries.