Allocating the European Parliament's Seats Post-Brexit

Last year, as before every European election cycle, the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) was tasked to draw up a proposition for the allocation of seats within the European Parliament for the 2019-2024 period. Although such administrative proceedings usually attract little attention, this year’s decision is expected to be a permanent one that may set in stone the balance of power among Member States for many years to come. Combined with the uncertain fate of the 73 seats to be vacated by the UK MEPs, this is an issue that could have far-reaching political implications for the whole Union.


The European Parliament’s composition is determined according to Article 14(2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), clarifying that there cannot be more than 750 MEPs, not including the President. The Article continues by stating that the “representation of citizens shall be degressively proportional” and that a Member State must have a minimum of six and a maximum of 96 representatives. However, interpreting what “degressive proportionality” means has caused endless debates ever since. In a later Decision by the European Council (Decision 2013/312/EU), the term was defined via two criteria:

  1. A Member State can never have more MEPs than a more populous one
  2. An MEP from a more populous state has to represent more citizens than his counterparts from less populous states.

There are a number of practical challenges posed by these criteria. First of all, the Parliament’s current composition is not strictly degressively proportional. For example, Hungary has one more MEP than Sweden, even though Sweden’s population is higher, while German MEPs represent fewer citizens than France, the UK or Spain, all of which are far less populous than Germany. In addition, there are other unreasonable allocations that should be rectified even though they do not explicitly breach the degressive proportionality principle, such as Lithuania (2.9 million citizens) having the same number of MEPs as Ireland (4.6 million citizens).

One factor that sets this election apart from previous ones is that, in its decision of March 2013, the European Council (EC) tasked the European Parliament to prepare a formula that would provide a permanent solution for the composition of the EP, one that would work even if there were other countries leaving or joining the Union. This was a legally binding obligation that the Parliament has already partially disregarded (since the deadline was the end of 2016), and as negotiations have only just started, there is a big question mark around the feasibility of preparing such a comprehensive solution in time. The next European Parliamentary elections are expected to be held around May or June 2019, but Member States will need sufficient time to familiarise themselves with the new rules in order to make the necessary adjustments to their voting systems.

The main source of confusion and hesitation is Brexit, which both adds an aura of uncertainty to the discussions and raises the practical issue of how to deal with the 73 seats to be vacated by British MEPs. It is not inconceivable that the UK will not conclude its secession from the EU according to the current timeline, which could lead to the absurd situation of having to hold European elections in the country. At the same time, many actors are attempting to use this uncertainty to put forward their agendas or propose unique solutions. There is talk about Pan-European lists as well as propositions to reform the very foundations of not only the Parliament but also the Council. Although most of these initiatives are very unlikely to succeed due to their tenuous support and lack of time for deliberation, the ideas behind them are worth discussing later.

Brief introduction to the options

By law, the Parliament’s composition must be approved by unanimity in the European Council; therefore the last few election cycles have all led to horse-trading and temporary political compromises, explaining the imperfections in the current system. Efforts to reach a permanent consensus have been hampered by the fact that the proposed solutions are almost exclusively complicated mathematical formulas. Although these all provide degressively proportional solutions, they are largely indifferent towards political considerations and are feared to be too technocratic for voters at a time when citizens are losing belief in the European construct.

It is said that there are up to 77 different propositions for formulas that could fit the criteria in the Treaties, although only a handful are actively being discussed in the AFCO Committee. Putting aside their theoretical basis, it is worth looking at the principles behind them as well as their potential effects. All the formulas are explained in detail in the Briefing of the Workshop held this January in the Parliament:

1. Cambridge Compromise

Maybe the simplest of all the proposed formulas, the Cambridge Compromise proposes five “base seats” for every Member State, as well as one seat for every 846,000 citizens (with a cap of 96 seats). Since the latter is rounded upwards, the Treaty criterion of a minimum of six seats would also be fulfilled. This method, like most of the others, reduces the representation of the medium-sized countries and would redistribute 66 seats (more than two per country on average). The main criticism against it is that it is not a politically viable option since it would upset the status quo.

2. Power Compromise [PC] and Modified Cambridge Compromise [MCC]

Both these formulas are inspired by the simplicity of the Cambridge Compromise but attempt to redress its excessive redistributing consequences so that it becomes politically viable. This is best demonstrated by the fact that both the PC and the MCC only redistribute 42 seats compared to the CC’s 66. Regrettably, both solutions take a lot away from the initial clarity of the original concept, which was the Cambridge Compromise’s biggest virtue.

3. The 0.5-DP method

The main idea behind this method is that MEPs represent their countries and their political groups in equal fashion, and thus it proposes a combination of proportional and degressively proportional representation. Depending on the level of degressivity assigned, the model can yield different results, but the authors imply that the best outcomes are obtained when the two aspects are represented equally (0.50-DP). This method would only redistribute 32 seats.

4. The Parabolic Method

First suggested in 2007, this formula was maybe the first mathematically to address the issue of the Parliament composition not adhering to the Treaties. It is, however, a highly technical solution based on a function with three coefficients that form a second-degree parabolic curve.

The following graph demonstrates the allocations resulting from each formula compared to the existing numbers:

European Parliament Composition (Graph 1)

Although the methods differ, there is no country that could win seats with one formula and lose seats with another. There are definite winners (such as France or Spain), while the medium-sized Member States are going to lose a large number of seats whichever formula is adopted. More concretely, the eight countries with between 7 and 12 million inhabitants will definitely lose at least one seat, no matter the method of calculation. This may lead to fierce debates in both the Council and the Parliament.

 European Parliament Composition (Graph 2)

A hole the size of the United Kingdom

The elephant in the room is the fast-approaching withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, which could substantially alter all previous considerations. There are three main lines of thought on what to do with the seats left by British MEPs. First of all, they could just be scrapped and the number of MEPs reduced. This option would show restraint and a willingness to cut back on bureaucracy and costs, necessitated partly by the anticipated impact of the UK’s withdrawal on the EU budget.

Secondly, some call for the reallocation of the UK’s seats among the remaining Member States, although without an accepted method of calculation it is impossible to foresee who would be the real winners of such a solution. Presumably, once an agreement is reached those states favoured by the chosen formula will opt to support this option.

The third and maybe most likely solution is a partial re-distribution, in which some of the UK’s seats are kept in order to let the medium-sized Member States hold onto most of their seats. If 43 UK seats were to be retained (resulting in a Parliament with 721 seats in total), no state would lose any MEPs according to the Modified Cambridge Compromise, while the same outcome requires 45 seats to be retained (723 seats in total) in the case of the Power Compromise formula.

In addition, many MEPs argue that the seats should be kept in reserve, in the unlikely event that the United Kingdom ultimately decides not to leave the Union. However unlikely, lawmakers feel that they should prepare a “Plan B” for such a scenario, even if having an official plan for a Brexit U-turn could send the wrong message to both the UK Government and the Eurosceptic media.

Institutional schemes and practical issues

To make matters worse, time is running out for an agreement to be reached. Before the last cycle, the Council realised that relying on last-minute political compromises for the composition is both ineffective and cumbersome. Therefore, in 2013, it tasked the Parliament with drafting a permanent solution by the end of 2016. The deadline was set so that Member States had enough time to react to the compromise reached, as there is a strong possibility that in some states electoral maps will have to be redrawn. MEPs nonetheless decided that there was no point in debating the topic as long as the United Kingdom hadn’t officially triggered Article 50.

MEPs are hopeful that an agreement can be reached at Committee level by the end of summer, since then the proposal also has to be adopted in the plenary before being sent to the European Council. If the EC decides to make amendments to it, the Parliament will also have to accept or reject the modified proposition. Accordingly, few expect an agreement to be reached before the final weeks of 2017, while pessimists expect an even longer process, which would only leave Member States roughly a year to revise their voting systems in order to conform to the new allocations.

Another complicating factor is that the Council’s current voting system (double majority) is also regarded by many as unfair for both Member States and, to a smaller extent, citizens. In fact, the current system in the Parliament was created partially to counterbalance the Council’s lop-sidedness. The main issue is that, in order to change the voting system in the Council, a Treaty change would be required, and although the proposed so-called “Jagellonian Compromise” would provide a fairer distribution of voting power, almost everyone agrees that this is not the right moment to re-open the Treaties.

At the same time, the Council is trying to push its own voting method onto the Parliament, in order to create a sort of symmetrical bicameralism within the EU (meaning a shared legislative power between two “chambers” or “houses” with practically identical powers). These attempts are unlikely to succeed, though, since most MEPs categorically oppose such solutions and any formula accepted in the Council needs the Parliament’s explicit approval.

Miscellaneous ideas

Many see the uncertainty as an opportunity to suggest more progressive solutions. There is an idea circulated by stakeholders of a “pan-European list”, where MEPs would not exclusively be elected through their Member States but also via a common list for which every European citizen could vote. Although a recurring idea, it is the least likely to succeed since it would also require a change in the Treaties.

If the UK does leave the Union, there is also a question of the voting rights of ex-pat British citizens living within the EU. The Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, proposed that they could be allowed to keep their European citizenship; but in that case it would be very difficult to establish a system where they could also be represented in the European Parliament.

Lastly, many MEPs mentioned the lack of clarity in the way population figures are calculated in different Member States, as well as the fact that some countries are engaged in selling EU nationality to foreigners. At the same time, this is not a particularly relevant issue since the Parliament’s current mandate is merely on questions of composition, and does not entail the opportunity to recommend changes with regards to population calculation methods within the EU.

In brief, the Parliament’s composition is a manifold and intricate issue, complicated by a severe time constraint and the shadow of Brexit looming over the whole process. There is a substantial risk that any rushed decision will just make matters worse, and therefore a new temporary compromise is not completely inconceivable.

Next steps

Co-Rapporteurs Danuta Maria Hübner (EPP, Germany), and Pedro Silva Pereira (S&D, Portugal) will shortly present a Draft Report to be discussed in the AFCO Committee, with a view to reaching an agreement by September or October 2017 at the latest. The proposal would then proceed to be discussed in plenary, meaning that it could be adopted in the Parliament before the end of 2017. This would leave approximately a year for the Council and the EP to find a viable compromise on the text, since the new system should be agreed upon by the end of 2018 in order to give enough time for the Member States to prepare for the elections of 2019.

Additional facts

Official title: Proposal for a European Council Decision revising the composition of the European Parliament in accordance with Article 14(2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)

Proposal Date: not yet proposed

Legal Basis: Article 14(2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)

Type of Procedure: Special procedure under Article 14(2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)