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Not your grandparents' Europe

DW author Cristina Burack.
Cristina Burack
May 21, 2019

Europe has come a long way over two generations, but it's not yet where it needs to be. The EU needs to reform its unequal voting system and give citizens true political voices as Europeans, argues DW's Cristina Burack.

Three men sitting on a bench
Image: picture-alliance/imageBroker

The older my grandfather gets, the more he slips into his memories. Sitting on his sofa, he conjures up a Europe that no longer exists but still defines him to this day.

He's seen a lot since his birth in a Castilian village 92 years ago: a bloody civil war, 36 years of dictatorship, a transition to democracy that was anything but given, and Spain's entry into the EU's predecessor, the European Community.

Hearing him talk about other Europeans reminds me just how far Europe has come. For him, Italians are "bad people" that Mussolini sent to Spain to fight for Franco. And Germany is a "warrior nation," albeit one with "smart engineers," that lent its technical military might to Spain's dictatorship.

These unshakable qualifications can be mind-boggling for me, a Spanish-American living in Germany with a French partner, to hear. Yet that is the Europe he experienced — and I am glad that Europe today is no longer the one that left its lasting influence on him.

Unequal election system

But with potentially fate-changing elections coming up in the European Parliament, I am asking myself what Europe needs to do to become the place I want for my grandchildren, who will call multiple corners of the continent home.

DW editor Cristina Burack
DW editor Cristina BurackImage: Bilal El Soussi

I want them to be able to have a political voice as Europeans through democratic representation at the European level, because overcoming Europe's challenges depends on citizens who are politically invested across national borders.  

Right now, citizens of EU states do not truly have voices as Europeans, only as nationals. In fact, only half of respondents across all 28 member states felt their voice counts at all in the EU, a recent poll found.

The European Parliament may be the EU's only directly-elected institution, but representatives are selected in a system that divides by nationality.

Every vote does not get equal weight, favoring smaller countries. Each nation has its own rules as to how a party can get on the ballot and, once there, whether voters choose from a fixed list of candidates or have more flexibility to rank them.

Eight EU countries have a minimum threshold of votes a party needs to pass in order to win any seats in parliament. The rest don't. And in the Czech Republic, you cannot vote if you live abroad and voting is not compulsory. In Belgium, it's exactly the opposite.  

Reform needed

These are just a few structural inequalities that trap European voters by national categories from the moment they are presented with their ballot.

The EU needs to introduce pan-European lists across all member states, so parties and candidates must earn the hearts of individuals as Europeans, not just as Danes or Swedes. Representation proportions should be reformed, so every vote gets equal weight. Voting procedures should be the same in every country, so that there is equality of choice.

And the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive leader, must be directly elected by voters, rather than needing heads of state to put forth the candidate who should, but may not, reflect the leading politician that had been presented to voters as a potential president.

Read moreForward or backward? Decision time in the EU

National governments in the hot seat

By not addressing these flaws, national governments have failed to go beyond their warm rhetoric for the EU and embrace action for true European representation. Yet it is in their interests to push for this if they want to ensure the survival of democracy in Europe.

The longer they stifle reform, the more belief in EU democracy will suffer — and consequently belief in democracy in general. At a time of rising populism, Europe cannot afford this.

Read moreWill trolls or truth win in the European Parliament elections?

Reform won't get rid of populism, but it will strengthen European identification at the EU level, undercutting the image that Brussels is no more than an interest lobby for nation states.

Sail on, EU!

Thanks in large part to open borders and freedom of movement, Europe has largely moved beyond an era of blanket national categorizations, though stereotypes can rear their ugly heads in times of crisis. Voting reform would make some 500 million EU citizens think of and express themselves as Europeans.

So when I am old and sitting on the couch, recalling my memories of Europe to my grandchildren, of the way we were asked to keep the EU project afloat while constrained by national ties, I want them to think, "I'm glad it's no longer my grandmother's Europe."

DW author Cristina Burack.
Cristina Burack Editor and reporter focusing on culture, politics and history