A fair share of MEPs

One interesting issue that I didn’t mention in my discussion of the outvoting debate a couple of days ago is the question of the ratio of MEPs to population for each country.

The Telegraph seems to be suggesting that there’s a problem:

Britain has around ten per cent of the seats in Brussels, and is one of the most underrepresented by head of population, under a system designed to increase the clout of small nations. There is one MEP for every 880,000 British voters, compared to one for every 70,900 Maltese. The EU average is one MEP for 486,000 voters.

The 10% figure is roughly correct: the UK has 73 out of 751 seats. Now, considering the UK has some 12% of the population of the EU, you might consider that a reasonable reflection of our actual clout.

But it’s true that smaller countries have proportionally more MEPs than we do per head of population (and, out of interest, a similar principle applies to votes in the EU Council). This system is known as degressive proportionality, and it has been unanimously agreed by all EU governments and national parliaments as a good way to allocate seats. But is it, nonetheless, a bad thing?

The first thing to note is that Britain is no stranger to this kind of variation. In the UK, just as in the EU, the smaller countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have proportionally more MPs in Westminster per voter than England. Deciding how to draw constituency boundaries, and how many people to include in each one, is an immensely complex issue, one that needs to take account of physical and cultural boundaries, geographical size, population density and existing political sensitivities as well as the simple number of people in each area. That’s why we have a special Boundaries Commission dedicated to weighing up these issues in England and Wales.

What about the EU? Well, I think it’s important that the EU’s smaller countries (a number of them smaller, incidentally, than my constituency of Yorkshire & Humber) have a voice at the table without being shouted down by their much bigger neighbours. This is the main motivation behind degressive proportionality. But it’s also a simple mathematical fact that a strictly proportional system wouldn’t work.

Suppose we wanted to recalculate the number of MEPs so every country was represented exactly according to its population. How would we do this?

  • One obvious approach to make sure nobody lost out would be to multiply up the number of seats so everyone was represented by as many MEPs as the smallest countries are now. Well, Malta has one MEP for every 70,900 citizens. If Britain had proportionally the same number of citizens per MEP, this would give us a whopping 889 MEPs (some 71 of them in my constituency!). And the European Parliament, in an EU of 503 million people, would have well over seven thousand seats — making it 11 times larger than the House of Commons, which is already a pretty large chamber by international standards. I think we can all agree that creating this kind of mega-parliament would be an impractical step, not to mention an expensive and unpopular one!
  • Another approach would be to keep Parliament the size it is now (751 seats), simply dividing the seats among the EU’s population more evenly. Britain, with 12% of the population of the EU, would end up with 82 seats — a modest gain compared to today’s 73, equivalent to less than 1 extra MEP in each region. Germany would make a big gain, electing 24 new members. But down at the bottom of the table, Malta (with its tiny 0.08% of the European population) would be entitled to only half of a single MEP — perhaps job-sharing with Luxembourg, whose allocation would be similarly fractional! And a good third of all EU countries would have two or fewer seats, making a mockery of the concept of proportional representation. Again, I think we can all agree that this system would be unworkable.

The long and short of it is that the only good way to allocate direct representation for countries with such widely varying populations — short of throwing the whole idea of national-level elections out of the window, which I take it nobody is seriously suggesting — is to use a degressive system very much like the one we have now. That’s probably why it has been agreed by all EU countries since the very first days of European Parliament elections, approved by every country’s national parliament, and enshrined in successive European treaties. It’s simply the only practical way to go.

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