© Shutterstock

The Long Path of Direct Elections to the European Parliament: Then and Now

avril 2019

The long years of war had left Europe weak and resource-stripped; there was a pressing need to build a unified European alliance. To regain its strength and ascertain peaceful conditions, on May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman, the then French Foreign Minister, proposed the formation of the European Community of Steel and Coal (ECSC)1. This would later be hailed as a milestone, for it was to be the first point of European integration, through the freedom of economic activities between countries, renewal of the industrialization process and belaying all possibilities of conflict between the same countries which had been at war against each other until only a few years ago. It was the genesis of a common ground to build Europe of the future as the Treaty of Paris envisioned; and to be one amongst the most powerful blocks in the world, effectively building the basis for a well oiled European economy but also a stronger political body representing interests of this unified entity, which was not limited to the individual nation states. 

By Bhagyashree Sagar

  • 1. ‘Declaration of 9th May 1950’ by Robert Schuman

Genesis of the European Parliament through the Treaty of Paris

Under this treaty, a common assembly was created which had purview over not just the ECSC but also the two other bodies, which came into existence in 1958 including the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom)2. The Common Assembly, which would serve as a critical democratic entity within Europe, would come to be known as the ‘European Parliament’ from March 30, 1962 onward. 

Even though the first direct elections to the European Parliament would only take place more than 27 years after its formation, it is pertinent to note, that the Treaty of Paris, gave the provision to its member nations to hold direct elections by universal suffrage to send the representatives to the national assembly as opposed to only designating members from their national parliaments3. However, this option was never exercised, as these were arguably uncertain times and there was a need to ensure stability of this new, futuristic venture by queling any form of dissent from the opponents to the Common Assembly. There were also concerns about keeping the communist parties of France and Italy out of the fray of the newly formed Assembly, since in the Cold War atmosphere of that time, they were still perceived to be in an alliance with the Soviet Union4. There were, therefore, concerted efforts to fiercely guard the Assembly against any potential attacks, when it was in fact only in its nascent stages. This fear was palpable because the exercise of direct elections was being sacrificed at the risk of undermining the “representative” nature of the Assembly itself. Another potential reason was, perhaps, the difficulty in defining what were to be the European issues which would become key for any direct elections, an argument many leaders used to justify the delay.

  • 2. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/11/the-european-parli…
  • 3. Article 21(1) of the Treaty of Paris states: ‘The Assembly shall consist of delegates who shall be designated by the respective Parliaments once a year from among their members, or who shall be elected by direct universal suffrage, in accordance with the procedure laid down by each High Contracting Party’.
  • 4. p. 9. Piodi, F., (2009). Towards direct elections to the European Parliament. Archive and Documentation Centre, Cardoc Journals, Special Issue N. 4

Setting-up an Ad Hoc assembly for New Political guidelines

Despite formally coming into existence only in 1958, the Common Assembly was already given its first task of forming an Ad-Hoc Assembly by the six foreign ministers of the member states on March 10, 19525. The Common Assembly met officially for the first time six years later, on March 19, 1958 as the ‘European Parliamentary Assembly’6. This Ad Hoc assembly was meant to draft the guidelines for the new political community, which was under work. The project of the Ad Hoc Assembly failed eventually due to non-ratification, but it was the first platform where the question of direct elections through suffrage was tackled; despite the member’s views being predominantly negative. Their first report entitled ‘Work Programme of the Constitutional Committee’ proposed two chambers in the new Assembly- “People’s Chamber and a Senate”7. The idea was to have direct elections only for representatives in the People’s chamber and national parliament nominees in the Senate. 

They were subsequently questioned by the ECSC council of ministers over the need of conducting open direct elections for setting up the new assembly according to democratic guidelines. This opened the debate amongst the members with regards to the necessity of holding direct elections to fulfill the goals of deeper European integration. This is crucial, because, as many then argued, if the intent of the assembly was to forge deeper integration, the involvement of the people should have been deemed necessary.

There were leaders like Antonio Anzara, a member of the Assembly, who argued that, “a genuine European political authority could only result from the election of an Assembly by direct universal suffrage and that the representatives to that Assembly would be the only people vested with the necessary authority to override national sovereignty, for they would enjoy the wide support of the public, whose ideas they would voice8.

While this idea of attaining political authority through the will of the people continued to be a key trope throughout the narrative of direct elections, many also felt that, at this point, appeasement of the national parliaments was critical to keep cooperation levels high, by continuing to ask them to nominate their representatives to the Assembly. There were other reservations too:  Leaders felt that the citizens of Europe were to be given time to recognize and comprehend European issues, or that there was the need of a  period of adjustment before the practice of direct elections. This period was deemed “natural and necessary” and it was advised that nominated representatives were to be able to legislate in the meanwhile. 

Some others said that holding direct elections would be a futile and premature exercise because, till the time the Assembly was not able to garner enough attention with its work, the interest of the citizens was going to be half-hearted and would result in a distorted representation within the Assembly. 

There was perhaps a reinforced sense of fear of instability , a clambering to keep the power close and not disperse it through open elections. There seemed to be more preoccupations with the viability of the institution itself, than with making it more popular or democratic. 

However, despite the skepticism, the Ad Hoc Assembly’s recommendations were to be drafted into a treaty, and while presenting the introductory report, Heinrich von Brentano, Constitutional Committee chairman, echoed what he dubbed the concerns of the more committed members, “In the mind of the founders, elections on a European scale have a powerful, dynamic value. These are the safest way, given the inherent educational value of each election, of involving the masses directly in Europe’s organization. As a consequence, the Community can expect from an elected Assembly the impetus needed for its development and guarantees for new and necessary progress9. It is another thing that this treaty, which was adopted by the Ad Hoc Assembly on March 10, 1953, would never be ratified and the consequent Treaty of Rome would further delay Europe’s progress to the direct elections. 

Creation of a Working Party for the European Elections

It was the Treaty of Rome which created the EEC and the Euratom and vested the European Parliament with power of all three supranational institutions. This treaty was also crucial for the Common Assembly, for it reopened the debate on increasing the powers of its legislative body, and consequently the elections through universal suffrage. The argument reigned that there was a need for giving the Common Assembly greater moral and political authority10. This could not be done if the representatives were being nominated from one Parliament to another. The debate was triggered upon noticing that the Treaty of Rome did not provide for the same provisions as its predecessors for holding direct elections to the Common Assembly. When this caught the attention of the Committee on Political Affairs and Institutional Matters of the European Parliamentary Assembly at their inaugural meeting of March 8, 195811, a resolution was introduced to create a new Working Party that would work on preparing the European elections. This new working party came into being several months later and adopted the name “Working Party on European Elections”. It started out with 9 members and increased to 13 by March 16, 195912, and would meet 20 times. 

The periods of debating between 1958-59 moved towards a solution found in holding direct elections for two-thirds of the assembly and the remaining one-third to be nominees of the member Parliaments. Before, the direct elections in 1979, these nominees held a dual mandate, i.e., were members of both their national parliaments and the European Parliament13. This arrangement served to facilitate a link with the national governments. However, the committee still settled on a transitional period of an “unspecified length” before the entire assembly could be elected by the universal suffrage14. This solution also signaled that there was a need of increasing the constituencies proportional to the people who would be voting directly and to allow the distribution of seats by the indirect election between various national groups. Additionally, the solution closed the scope of dual candidacy for those elected through direct elections. 

There were a few other key concerns, which this transnational period addressed. For instance, the question of a unified electoral system was left up to the individual governments. And the proposal of having cross-border constituencies was shot down too, as a way to ensure a better ratio between representatives and voters, to give way to constituencies “completely contained”15 within the member states. 

The Draft Convention of 1960

A conclusive pillar of the Working Committee was The Draft Convention of 1960. The convention made the provision for 426 members, thrice the number ratified in the earlier treaties, for election through suffrage. This convention did not adopt any proposals for a singular electoral system out of fears of alienating national governments. This was in line with the general apprehensions of upsetting national governments or being seen in a way causing any inconvenience to them16

The Plenary Assembly debate of May 10 and 11 196017, which took place around the resolution of the Draft convention posed a question pertinent for the institution of the European Parliament. It was a criticism of the lack of powers of the Parliament, which was meant to be able to override national concerns, in the pursuit of deeper European integration; this Parliament was becoming subservient to member nations to be able to hold direct elections even during a transitional period. These limitations were being labeled as equivalent to those for holding national elections, but in all member states with no concerns for the issues of Europe. After the Draft Convention of 1960, there was a lull in the debate over the exercise of universal suffrage. This pause could perhaps be characterized by the shift of focus on other issues of the European community such as free movement of trade, changes in agricultural policy and in general strengthening the European body as an international institution. 

  • 16. Page 16, ‘The history of European electoral reform and the Electoral Act 1976’ by Olivier Costa
  • 17. Page 21, Ibid.

1968-1976: Final Journey to Direct Elections

The debate was renewed with vigor yet again towards the end of the 1960s, when a resolution was tabled to re-launch the debate in May 1968, considering that other issues of the European community had improved. The resolution was impactful, because it focused on the legal provisions which backed the direct elections and raised questions over the failure to take any action. 

During a meeting held on September 20th 1976, the Act on European elections by direct universal suffrage was signed in Brussels. The Act came into force in July 1978, after being ratified by all member states.  During the signing the then President of the European Parliament, Emilio Colombo, reiterated how the process of direct elections was in fact a manifestation of an ideology reared right from The Hague Conference of 1948. He said in the report presented to the Parliament, “The present organization of Europe…has failed to elicit the wholehearted support of its peoples who saw it as something remote from their everyday life. The election of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage provides an opportunity of bringing the debate on Europe into the public forum and of enlisting the active support of the man in the street for the construction of Europe.18

The initiation of this act had taken place during The Summit Conference held in Paris on December9 and 10, 1974, which determined that direct elections ‘should take place in or after 1978’ and asked Parliament to submit new proposals to replace its original draft convention of 1960. This was the successful result of this long-time political endeavor. In January 1975, Parliament adopted a new draft convention, on the basis of which the Heads of State or Government, after settling a number of differences, reached an agreement at their meeting of 12 and 13 July 1976.

Finally, after some political delays from due to  the member states, the Copenhagen Summit of April 1978 announced the date for the first European Direct Elections for June 7-10, 1979. 

In the long, winding path to direct elections taken by the Common Assembly, there is a sense of ambiguity over the real intentions of calling for universal suffrage. With the members in power of the electoral systems, free will could appear restricted, and the aspirations of political integration would still be limited. 

The central aim of this the ECSC was to overcome the “paralysis”19 of achieving unanimity in the European region, by seeking to delegate the powers of sovereignty to a supranational body like the European Parliament. However, even now, the process of taking it out of the shackles of the member-nations clout remains a significant issue, as concerns of European Parliament overstepping national democracies is relevant even today. If therefore the accountability of this supranational or multinational body had to be justified, it needed the mandate of the people, willing to devote more power over their own nation states. 

  • 18. Page 5, Elections to the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage by Directorate-General for Research and Documentation (July 1977)
  • 19. Page 9, ‘The Creation and Empowerment of the European Parliament’ by Berthold Rittberger

1979: The First European Direct Elections

However, even after the greenlight for the direct elections, the results were not too promising20. What was being touted as the opportunity to get the “blessings” of democracy in Europe21, being the first multi-national elections, was anything but a boon. The contradiction of citizens voting for a common European identity on the basis of national or even regional issues was evident. 

The voter turnout was about average and varied greatly between the nine member-states; proving to be a disappointment for all those who championed the cause of the unified European Community and relief for opponents of European integration. Out of the 180 million eligible voters, only 111 million exercised their vote, bringing the turnout to around 62.8 percent22. They chose from a total of 3692 candidates for an assembly of 410 members. Out of the elected MEPs- 344 were men and 66 women23. Out of the winners, 77 MEPs had served in the older Parliament and 125 sat on the dual mandate, that is, they also held a seat in their National parliament. Despite a stringent opposition from Britain over the dual mandate, other members were largely in favor of the same- because they believed that the strong candidature of some of the seasoned leaders was bound to garner more attention and intrigue towards the European Parliament elections24

As a face-saving mechanism, a few MEPs argued that the low turnout in the first election was a result of the absence of European issues and that, the next election in 1984, would be the real test of the European Parliament. But this did not prove to be true, as the turnout dropped further in 1984. Here too, the campaigns were focused largely on national issues. 

The focus on individualistic national interests as opposed to issues concerning the life and future of Europe, lead to disillusionment, and a consequent disinterest. It could have also been a case of upholding the status quo because there was no upheaval in the political system and most of the actors remained the same. This led several critics to dub the European elections as “The second order”25 in the process of understanding the unpopularity of direct elections. The argument presented here is that voters respond to the lower salience26 of the European Parliament elections -  with parties similar to those in the national elections and the heavy dominance of concurrent national issues overriding the European politics.

  • 20. Page 31, ‘The history of European electoral reform and the Electoral Act 1976’ by Olivier Costa
  • 21. Page 23, The Times: Guide to the European Parliament 1979 by David Wood
  • 22. Page 4, Ibid.
  • 23. Page 5, Ibid.
  • 24. Page 24, Ibid.
  • 25. Page 1, Motivating the European voter: Parties, issues and campaigns in European Parliament elections by Sara B. Hobolt and Jae-Jae Spoon.
  • 26. Page 3, Ibid.

Strengthening Democracy in European Elections since 1979

However, over the years, there have been repeated attempts to bring the European elections on the same footing across all member nations. An example is the concerted efforts to bring in a uniform electoral system through the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, which also established the European Union. But with the failure to gain consensus from the members of the Council, the issue was renegotiated with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 2002. This treaty gave a provision for the adoption of ‘Common Principles’ within the European Union.27

In order to bring into existence a uniform procedure, a legal basis made possible the adoption of  a single statute for MEPs. This statute, which would be enforced in 2004, put an end to the dual candidacy system, as previously encouraged. It was a considerable effort to limit the influence of national parliaments with the European Parliament. In addition to the incompatibility with positions in the national parliaments, it was made incompatible with a multitude of important positions such as member of European Council, member of the Court of Auditors, Ombudsman and several others.28 

Despite these international decisions to lend greater legitimacy to the European Parliament, it still suffers from problems of “democratic representativeness”, which are linked to the diversity of the national electoral rules. As suggested through the procedure of ‘Spitzenkandidaten’29 by leading EU political parties, others can take a cue in rebuilding their media narrative and improving the policies of communication and outreach to distinctly identify their European agendas from national agendas. Leaders must be able to tap into the role of the media in building a transnational narrative, in the absence of an umbrella structure of European identity. 

The problems, however, are not limited to the electoral systems, but also to the representatives. The European Parliament is as much of a political system, as any other national institution and yet, the representatives are seen to be lackadaisical in fulfilling their core task of adequately representing their electorate. This essential principle often seems to be ignored, when MEPs uphold positions at stark contrast with the popular public opinion; failing to legitimize their mandate.30

There is a need to relook and rethink the principles on which the European Direct elections were to be based on. If indeed, the elections were a way to broaden the legitimacy of a legislative body like the European Parliament, then the priority was to involve the common masses, and also address their concerns, which couldn’t simply be nationalistic. There needs to be a revival of the values, which an integrated European society sought to forge, through its historic supranational powers. The parliament also needs to recognize, that an institution seeking to build popularity amongst the people cannot be one solely of economy31; it needs to reinforce the principles of a shared culture, heritage and a remembrance of the same sentiments, which brought its people together after the Second World War. The member states must recognize the degree of their mutual interdependence in keeping the institutions of the European community strong.

  • 27. The European Parliament: Electoral procedures: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ftu/pdf/en/FTU_1.3.4.pdf
  • 28. Statute for Members of the European Parliament by CVCE. European Navigator (Susana Muñoz)
  • 29. Page 53, ‘The history of European electoral reform and the Electoral Act 1976’ by Olivier Costa
  • 30. Page 2, Beyond the European Parliament: Rethinking the EU’s democratic legitimacy by Anand Menon and John Peet
  • 31. Democratic Legitimacy and Political Leadership in the European Union: Towards the 2014 European Elections by Hedwig Giusto (ed)

Références bibliographiques

Parlement européen. Direction générale de la recherche et de la documentation. Elections to the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage. Luxembourg : Office for official publications of the European communities, 1977, 158 p.
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0000677547>
Voir aussi
© Jules Beley
In popular discourse, no one seems to question or temper the idea that participation in European Union (EU) elections has been decreasing constantly. After all, hasn’t it? With the elections coming up, it’s a good time to get the facts straight. By Jules Beley
© Caroline Maufroid / Sciences Po
Comment démocratiser l'Europe ? Quelle européanisation des vies politiques nationales ? Quelles implications citoyennes ? Autour de la thématique de l'existence d'une vie politique européenne, échange entre Loïc Azoulai de l'École de Droit , Bruno Cautrès du Cevipof et Olivier Rozenberg du Centre d’études européennes et de politique comparée .