Macron backs proposal for cohort of pan-EU MEPs

France is backing pan-EU lists of candidates for seats in the European Parliament as President Emmanuel Macron seeks to counter the rise of populist parties tapping into growing public hostility towards the bloc.

Paris has officially supported the proposal ahead of debates in the Strasbourg-headquartered parliament next week, emphasising the “unique opportunity” provided by Britain’s planned departure from the EU, which will leave its 73 seats up for grabs in EU elections taking place in 2019.

The idea of a pan-European cohort is also backed by Italy. It is up to the parliament itself to propose the rules that will govern the 2019 polls, but national governments must ultimately agree.

The move would “increase the visibility of trans-European parties in public opinion and stimulate the campaign”, French officials told MEPs in a letter last week. “At a time when the UK is leaving the union, such a reform will also send a message of unity and confidence in the European project,” they wrote.

The proposal is to be discussed at a meeting of the EU Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee on September 11. Rome proposed transnational lists at an EU Council meeting in late April, after floating the idea last year in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. 

“If we want to build European democracy, we have to stimulate what’s lacking: transnational politics in Europe and real European political parties,” Sandro Gozi, Italy’s EU minister, told the Financial Times. 

Mr Gozi said it was “very important” to have Mr Macron on board. “We were hoping for it”, he said. He added that other countries, including Belgium and Greece, were also “open” to the idea, while Germany had kept a “low profile” on it so far. “We have to build consensus for it, it’s very important politically and symbolically.”

Mr Macron’s endorsement could also go some ways towards patching up tensions between Rome and Paris over policy on migration, Libya, and the takeover of STX, the French state-backed shipyard on the Atlantic coast.

Mr Macron seized on the idea of transnational lists, long pushed by EU federalists, during his presidential campaign this year. He ran on a resolutely pro-EU platform against a backdrop of increasing defiance towards the institution in France and a surge in support for Eurosceptic candidates in the polls. 

The far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen, whom Mr Macron defeated in a presidential runoff in May, attracted the largest share of the votes in the last European parliamentary polls in 2014. Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany have also seen resurgent Eurosceptic parties in recent years.

It is expected that Mr Macron’s pro-European party, La République en marche, which the French leader launched just 17 months ago, will seek to play a central role in these cross-EU lists of candidates.

One consideration is that pan-European lists would increase the number of German MEPs at a time when the EU’s biggest member state already has what some see as too much sway over the bloc’s institutions.

Paris suggested the new MEPs should be allocated “about 50 seats” in the EU parliament out of a total of 750. Each voter would be able to cast a ballot for a national list and a pan-European list. The initiative would not require treaty changes, Paris said.

However, France is pushing for revising the number of parliamentary seats allotted to each member state. The result of hotly-contested political negotiations, the status quo has been criticised for not adapting to demographic trends in the bloc. Paris said the breakdown should be revised to “ensure the fair representation of citizens and to ensure the institution’s democratic legitimacy”.