How Unequal Is the European Parliament’s Representation?

The European Parliament election of May 22–25, 2014, has several unprecedented features. It is the first election under the Lisbon Treaty. For the first time, the main pan-European parties—including the center-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D)—are fielding lead candidates for European Commission President. Turning the election into a presidential horse race was intended to increase electoral participation and enhance the Parliament’s democratic legitimacy, even though it remains to be seen whether voters will actually see things these way.

The European citizens’ relative lack of interest in the European Parliament is often blamed by critics on its inherent inequality of representation. Voters in smaller member states are overrepresented. Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, when ruling on the Lisbon Treaty on June 30, 2009, said that the European Parliamentary election process “does not take due account of equality.” In the Court’s view, this constitutes one of two key factors in the European Union’s “structural democratic deficit,” the other being the European Parliament’s “position in the European competence structure,” i.e., its lack of power compared to other EU institutions.1

How much change would produce an acceptable level of equality of representation? Article 14(2) of the Treaty on European Union gives disproportionate weight to smaller countries, stipulating that “no representation of citizens should be degressively proportional, with a minimum threshold of six members [of the European Parliament] per [EU] Member State. No Member State shall be allocated more than ninety-six seats.” But the treaty does not provide a specific formula for representation, and the exact composition is to be adopted by unanimous decision of the European Council. The latest apportionment decision was adopted on June 28, 2013 (European Council Decision 2013/312/EU), in the run-up to the accession of Croatia as the European Union’s 28th member state.

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In the figures at the end of this post, we compare the skewed nature of the European Parliament’s representation of European voters with other lower houses of large or medium-sized democratic polities. The European Parliament is at the low end in terms of electoral equality. For each chamber, the figure shows the distribution of the number of eligible voters per representative, from the one(s) representing the lowest number of eligible voters, on the left end, to the one(s) representing the most, on the right end. A flat distribution indicates a high level of equality of representation. A sloped or skewed distribution indicates inequality of representation.2

These distributions are summarized in a “voting” Gini coefficient, akin to the familiar cross-country comparative measure of inequality of income. Here the Gini coefficient measures not income inequality but voting power inequality due to skewedness of representation across territorial subdivisions of the relevant polity.3 A high voting Gini coefficient suggests a high degree of voting power inequality among citizens eligible to vote.

The comparison suggests that the European Parliament is indeed outside the norm of European countries in terms of equality of representation. In its own way, so is Germany, whose professed commitment to this principle is unparalleled among countries reviewed. Higher levels of inequality of representation may be expected in larger, more diverse polities where the political complexity of federal arrangements leads to awkward institutional compromises, which is definitely the case of the European Union. In our sample, higher voting Gini coefficients are indeed also observed for the lower houses in India and Brazil, which come closest to the European Parliament on that measure. For example, in Brazil voters from the state of Sao Paulo are notoriously underrepresented. Yet the United States and Indonesia, which are also large and diverse, both display comparatively low voting Gini coefficients.

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