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European Elections 2024: How Would Transnational Lists and the Spitzenkandidat System Turn Out in Terms of Election Turnout?

2024 is an exciting year for a lot of different reasons. This year is often called super election year in the media and public discourse. 72 elections or renewals of parliamentary chambers take place this year (not counting the announced French early election). Around half of the world’s population go to the polls in 2024, among them the US, France, India, Mexico, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Half of the eligible populus of the EU was voting last week as well. With 51,08% turnout, the EU produced an average turnout rate considering the results of previous elections. In 1979, 61,99% participated in the first-ever European elections. Since then, turnout has rapidly declined until 2014, with a 42,61% participation ratio. The trend was somewhat broken with 50,66% and 50,93% in 2019 and 2024.

Only half of the eligible voters participating seems low, especially if we consider the usual turnout in countries that introduced compulsory voting, like Belgium and Luxembourg. In these countries, participation is higher than 80%, sometimes even reaching 90%. In 2024, the lowest turnout values were in Croatia (21,35%), Lithuania (28,35%), Bulgaria (33,79%), Latvia (33,82%), Slovakia (34,38%), Czechia (36,45%), Portugal (36,54%) and Estonia (37,6%), all under 40%.

Some of these numbers are so low that even the legitimacy of the elections and of the mandates of the MEPs elected from certain countries could be questioned. The overall 51,08% could be higher as well to enhance democratic legitimacy and mitigate democratic deficit in the EU. 

What is the reason for such low election turnouts? Could transnational lists and a formal introduction of the lead candidate process raise the election turnout, for which certain think tanks argued during the 2019-2024 mandate?

Many voters consider EU elections to be far away from their daily lives. Furthermore, there are underrepresented social classes as well. EU issues are poorly represented in the media in many countries. Citizens consider that national elections are more important, and they are correct if we look at this issue from different points of view. National elections decide who leads their country, influencing their own everyday life, the social policies, tax policies, the relationship between church and state, the criminal policies, and basically every significant policy. The European Parliament is a co-legislator of the EU and decides mostly about issues where the EU has competence to conduct ordinary legislative procedures, which is only a restricted number of issues (among special legislative procedures and other EP functions). Could it be that issues of European interest should be represented more? The Bertelsmann Stiftung was hoping for participation of 60% due to such important issues as the aggression of Russia against Ukraine, but their estimation failed.

In my opinion, the turnout rate could be improved by including European issues more into the national discourse, through transposing, and rephrasing these into questions that are important to them. MEPs are elected in most Member States through party lists, which means the national political parties are the ones competing with each other in order to gain seats in the European Parliament. This also means that national political parties and politicians have the task to do the work of translating European issues into the framework of national interest.

Introducing transnational lists will not improve election turnout. The European Parliament proposed the introduction of transnational lists in European Parliament elections in May 2022. According to this proposal, one more possibility of voting would be introduced on ballot papers, a vote for transnational lists. Citizens would have the possibility to cast one vote for transnational party lists, lists composed of European political parties. European political parties are umbrella organizations of national political parties and other entities, established by regulation 1141/2014. The position of the European Parliament was that transnational lists should have been introduced for the 2024 European elections; however, Member States did not support this in the Council of the European Union. 28 MEPs would have been elected from transnational lists in the form of a pilot phase in 2024, but the proposal failed in the end.

In practice, this would mean that European, transnational political parties would be the ones (instead of national parties), who would select those candidates who would be listed on the party lists to be elected. This means that the political arena would shift from national level to EU level and there would be transnational lists with no candidates from some of the Member States. Although, arguably, such significant change could shift the focus to European issues during the elections, this would not bring elections closer to the citizens, quite the contrary, there could be situations where they would not be able to vote for people from their own countries, which—very understandably—may create a sensation of being alienated from European political issues altogether, because a sentiment of being left without representation is natural in these cases.

Candidates on transnational lists might not even know the national realities of each country. They would not be able to mobilize voters in the national spheres and would not be able to translate European issues to the national level. From their position, to be able to win they would have to speak to all Europeans at the same time. In my opinion, this would lead to a decrease in voter participation as the voters would receive less translation and transposition of European issues into national political discourse.

Another idea to improve turnout was the introduction of the lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat) system. Every European political party would have a lead candidate, who would thrive to become the next president of the European Commission. According to its proponents, this would enhance the visibility of EU top jobs and would introduce a stronger political debate, mobilizing more citizens from Member States through thematizing European issues and attaching them to specific candidates. (However, according to Article 17 of the TEU, the European Commission needs to be independent, which would lead to a controversial situation of having lead candidates participating in political campaigns for an independent office). In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected through the lead candidate process (informally, without the modification of the Treaties of election norms). Voter turnout in 2014 was only 42,61%, which means the lead candidate system did not help raise the low turnout values. (The informal lead candidate process failed in 2019, as Ursula von der Leyen was not one of the candidates of the European political parties).

The lead candidate system cannot enhance voter turnout, except for perhaps those Member States, where successful lead candidates are from. Citizens of a Member State would not be invested to discuss more national issues aligning with European ones, when the lead candidate would be from a different country. The Spitzenkandidat would not be invested in translating European issues into the specifics of a particular Member State but would look at the EU as a whole. According to the above-listed numbers of low participation, citizens are not interested in discussing purely European issues, with no link to national interests and thus to their ordinary everyday life.

Therefore, in my opinion, the introduction of transnational lists and the formal establishment of the lead-candidate system would not serve the enhancement of voter turnout in EU elections. Citizens would only be more interested in EU issues if they saw the direct benefit of the election results in their everyday lives. Establishing purely European political selection procedures takes the issues further away from citizens, instead of bringing them closer. Many critics of the current election system state that the EU elections are not European in the sense that there are 27 different national elections instead of a uniform one. This is not the problem, quite the contrary: European elections need to be 27 national elections and they need to become even more nationally formulated to successfully gain the attention and interest of the citizens. European issues need to be translated into the language of the different peoples.

Árpád Lapu is an adviser at the Minister’s Cabinet of the Ministry of European Affairs of Hungary and an assistant research fellow at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary. He was a policy adviser on constitutional issues at the European Parliament between 2019-2024. In the years 2017-2019, he worked as an adviser at the Cabinet of the Minister of Justice of Hungary, conducting comparative constitutional analyses. He has earned his JD at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary, has a BA in international relations from the University of Szeged and an MA in European and international administration from Andrássy Gyula German Speaking University in Budapest. He has completed an Edx MicroMaster in cooperation with the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain) in international law. His field of research is neutrality and non-participation in armed conflicts in international law and constitutional norms regarding permanent neutrality. He has written publications regarding the future of the EU ETS system of the European Union, institutional reform proposals of the Union, and research in the field of social sciences.

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