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Historical Archives of the European Union

Europe’s democratic infrastructure: the road to the status quo

EPP Group Research Grant Fellow Wouter Wolfs takes a look at the debates and strategic choices underlying the European Union’s electoral infrastructure, and aims to analyse their relevance for future reform.

25 August 2022 | Research


Over the years, the European institutions, through the Electoral Act of 1976 and subsequent Treaties of Maastricht and Nice, have developed a party system with rules and funding as a mechanism to promote democratic representation and contribute to a public sphere. The resulting electoral infrastructure has a decisive impact on the quality of European democracy, and reforms to it are still debated today—most recently during the Conference of the Future of Europe.

Dr Wouter Wolfs, a historian turned political scientist, is visiting at the Archives this summer to take a look at how the European electoral infrastructure developed and evolved in its early years, focusing particularly on the role of the European People’s Party (EPP) and associated key actors. His work is supported by the Group of the European People’s Party Postgraduate Research Grants Programme at the Historical Archives of the European Union.

Evolving rules and political parties

As Wouter explains, European political parties have existed since the 1970s, but they did not receive their ‘constitutional mission’ until the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. The EPP, guided by actors such as Wilfried Martens, played a decisive role in negotiating the provisions on these Europarties that were included in that Treaty.

‘The rules are important,’ he emphasized, ‘because they shape the entire electoral system.’ ‘Moreover’, he continues, ‘European parties are privileged actors: they change the rules.’

Roads not taken

The present electoral infrastructure, with nationally-based direct elections for members of European Parliament, and the Spitzenkandidaten procedure to select the Commission’s President, is the product of decades of debate, negotiation, rules, and reform.

However, competing models that were rejected in the 1960s and 1970s, such as ranking systems and the creation of a Europe-wide electoral district, are still on the table. The Archives in Florence, as well as those of the EPP Group in Brussels and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Archives (KAS) in Sankt Augustin – Bonn, hold rich, behind-the-scenes information about the positions taken on the various systems by the different EP political groups and parties. According to Wouter, analysing these sources will shed light on ‘to what degree the status quo is due to intentional or unintentional motivations.’

It can also inform present-day discussions pertaining to proposed reforms of EU electoral law and the funding of political parties.

The EPP Group Grant

Wouter has been intrigued by the historical evolution of the EP’s electoral infrastructure for some time, so the EPP Group’s Grant at the HAEU presented both ‘an incentive and an opportunity’ to take a detailed look.

Thanks to the grant, Wouter now has the time and resources to consult primary sources, but also to identify and carry out interviews with the key players from the EPP who were involved in the main debates and negotiations on electoral law.
With the quality of EU democracy ever on the public agenda, but also a topic of interest of many academic disciplines, Wouter aims to publish the results of his analysis in the form of an academic article.

Last update: 25 August 2022

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