Term Limits Would Bring the EU Closer to its Citizens

Corinna Hörst
Nienke Schrover
5 min read
Photo Credit: Botond Horvath / Shutterstock
The news last week that the Christian Democratic Union in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia does not intend to put forward Elmar Brok as a candidate in the

The news last week that the Christian Democratic Union in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia does not intend to put forward Elmar Brok as a candidate in the coming European Parliament elections was something of a sensation for EU watchers. First elected in 1979, he is the institution’s longest-serving member and a highly influential figure in Brussels. While some may lament the loss of this constant in the fast-paced world of EU politics, this development is also an opportunity to raise the question of term limits for members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Declining voter turnout and growing Euroskepticism show that there is a need for new formulas to bring citizens closer to the decision-making processes of the European Union. When it comes to the European Parliament, having democratic elections every five years is simply not enough. Term limits could lead to a healthier circulation of new politicians through Brussels, bring the parliament and the EU closer to citizens, and make EU policymaking even more relevant to more of them.

Furthermore, as parties get ready for the election campaign to start in March, the fact that much of the debate in Brussels has focused again on the lead-candidate process shows the failure to understand the need for fundamental change. Most EU citizens have little idea how their vote might affect the work done by the parliament or who will take the leadership roles in the EU institutions such as the European Commission.

There has been a steady decline in the average turnout per member state for the European Parliament elections. In the first one in 1979, it was 62 percent; by 2014 it had fallen to 43 percent. In comparison, over the same period the average turnout in national elections also declined to near 70 percent.

Term limits to ensure greater democracy have been little discussed in the context of the European Parliament. One study has showed that the percentage of re-elected MEPs tended to increase over the years as has their average length of service. In 2014, over 50 percent of MEPs were re-elected. Reasons for this include that incumbents often have higher campaign budgets and that people tend to vote for people they recognize. Allowing MEPs to serve only a fixed number of terms, say two, would level the playing field and give more newcomers a chance to get elected.

By producing more new MEPs, term limits would help bring more diverse perspectives, fed by a wider range of experiences, to the legislative process. The reality of members’ lives is that they are mostly away from the communities that elect them—in Brussels and Strasbourg for sittings, as well as on foreign travel for delegation work or party conferences and trips. This prevents them from having a more robust engagement with their voters and over time creates a disconnect from local concerns. Term limits can ensure that new legislators come to Brussels who are abreast of recent changes in their communities and will remain engaged with them as they know they will have to return there at a fixed date.

A more frequent influx of new members could also lead to a better image for the parliament as a whole. Currently, being a member comes with mixed reputation. While in the case of some countries MEPs can have the reputation of being in Brussels because they were no longer of use to their national parties at home, in others countries being a MEP means receiving higher salary and seemingly excessive benefits than what they would get back home which can lead to jealousy and questioning their motivation.

By contrast, there are already a few examples of members, some of them younger, who use a mandate in the European Parliament to develop skills and networks, and to make a name for themselves before running in national politics. For example, Kaja Kallas, an MEP from Estonia, elected in 2014, was recognized for her work on the digital single market before returning home in 2018 where she now leads the Reform Party.  Similarly, Jan Philipp Albrecht, a MEP from 2009 to 2018 became quite influential for his work on data privacy and is now Deputy Minister-President of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany.

Term limits alone cannot fix the disconnect with citizens and the distrust of the political crowd. For example, ethics rules that prevent former elected officials from taking positions too closely linked with their former dossiers need to be in place. The new code of conduct of the European Union that came into force last year is a step in the right direction. It states that after ending their term MEPs are not allowed for two years to take on jobs related to their position in parliament. Further, the matter of taking additional employment while being a MEP as well as that of political party compositions in EU member states and their pipelines for new talent should also be revisited.

Democratic processes in the EU are not only under threat from the outside but also from within. As parties are developing their programs to appeal to voters, they might also want to revisit some of their own practices and make room for new, more diverse faces to represent a constituency, a party, a region, a country, or a policy matter in Brussels.