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Minority MEPs?

by NordicStorm Mon Nov 5th, 2007 at 08:34:02 AM EST

Finland will lose one seat in the European Parliament in the next scheduled elections in 2009. This has caused some concern, as it would likely mean that the MEP of the Swedish People's Party, a party which is supposed to represent the Swedish-speaking minority's interests, would lose his seat (Finland is a single EP constituency with its 14 MEPs being elected using the d'Hondt method; the SPP MEP was the 14th elected in the elections of 2004). One proposal floating around would be to create a special constituency for the Swedish speaking population.
It wasn't a particularly serious proposal, but without necessarily agreeing that minority representation for the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland in the EP would be essential, it got me thinking a bit about the practical issues of creating minority constituencies.

To add a bit of context, the Swedish-speaking minority differs from other linguistic minorities in Finland in that Swedish, per the Finnish constitution, has equal status to Finnish as a national language. It is by far the most spoken minority language in the country (currently about 5.5%. The second largest minority language, Russian, is spoken by less than 1%). Swedish is a compulsory school subject in Finnish-language schools, while Finnish is compulsory in Swedish-language schools (a state of affairs that is not entirely without controversy).
While the Finland-Swedes are generally concentrated to the coastal regions, they don't form a distinct and separate geographic entity from the rest of Finland. Particularly in urban settings there is little to no segregation. Creating a one-seat constituency on the basis of geography would thus be a bit difficult.

The issue then becomes how to identify someone as a member of a minority. In the case of Finland, your mother tongue (Finnish, Swedish or other) is registered by the government, so you would think it would be fairly easy to define someone as a Finland-Swede. It isn't that clear cut, however; you might or might not identify as a Finland-Swede based on a number of factors (which I'm not going to elaborate on here). Deciding which constituency you're supposed to be voting in might, in other words, be a bit difficult.
The political implications would be interesting. The Swedish People's Party is so dominant in the Swedish-speaking areas (receiving up to a 100% of the votes in some regions) to the point that creating a Swedish-speaking constituency would effectively guarantee them a permanent seat in the parliament, which doesn't strike me as particularly democratic. Then again, it might provide ample motivation for the other parties to start seriously contesting the minority vote.
Furthermore, it doesn't strike me as unlikely that the SPP could retain the seat by forming an alliance with one of the other minor parties, such as the Christian Democrats, who have significant support from Finland-Swedish quarters.
And, it must be mentioned, at least two of Finland's 14 MEPs are Finland-Swedes. One (Henrik Lax) is a member of the aforementioned SPP, while the other (Alexander Stubb) is a member of the conservative National Coalition Party and is a fairly popular politician on the national level. Being a Swedish-speaker is not an impediment for a successful career in Finnish national politics (though a fairly decent command of the Finnish language would of course be required nevertheless).

I'm writing this from my vantage point in Finland, but it should only serve as an example.
A few Spanish MEPs are Basque or Catalan, who seem to able to get themselves elected, though not without difficulty, judging by the results from the 2004 election.
The German-speaking region of Belgium has its own MEP (Mathieu Grosch); representing "only" 71,000 people, it is the lowest amount of people represented by one MEP in the EU. In the Belgian federal parliament, the German-speaking areas are part of the generally Francophone electoral districts. In other words, there are special provisions to ensure Germanophone representation in the EP, but not on the national level.
In Romania, who has a significant Hungarian-speaking minority, three of its current 35 MEPs are of the Hungarian minority party, though all of Romania's current MEPs were appointed by the Romanian Parliament; the first Romanian EP elections will be held on November 25. Additionally, on the national level, minorities recognised by the government are entitled to one seat in the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Romanian Parliament (the Hungarian minority party holding a sizable number of seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies).

And what about minorities that transcend borders? The Romani people would be the prime example. Currently, two MEPs from Hungary (Viktória Mohácsi and Lívía Járóka) are Roma, but they're only the second and third Romani MEP to serve (the first being Juan de Dios Ramirez-Heredia of Spain, having served between 1994 - 1999).  And there's millions of Roma living across Europe. The indigenous Sami people that primarily inhabit the northern parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia have no representation in the EP, and very little representation elsewhere. In fact, Janne Seurujärvi, who was elected to the Finnish parliament in 2007, was the first Sami ever to be elected to the Finnish parliament.
Member nations are free to decide how to create constituencies and conduct elections for the European Parliament, with some restrictions.

All of this brings us to what I hope will be topic of discussion: Is the idea of having special constituencies for minorities at all feasible and/or desirable? Should special arrangements be made to ensure minority representation in the European Parliament? How about creating transnational constituencies? Should the EP be a parliament of the nations or of the peoples?

Of course, given that a mere 30% of the MEPS are female, maybe we're actually in dire need of majority representation...

Okay, I don't if this is a topic of great interest, but what the heck.

Other things to consider:

  • Low voter turnout through-out Europe
  • The emergence of "true" European political parties
  • Minority representation on the national level

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Mon Nov 5th, 2007 at 08:49:48 AM EST
In a 13-seat constituency 1/14 of the vote, or just over 7%, guarantees you a seat, though you can get away with less than that. Or, rather, 1/4 of the vote after discarding the votes of even smaller parties.

In 2004 the Swedish People's Party obtained one seat with 5.7%, which is less than the 1/15 you need to guarantee a seat among 14, even after discounting the 6.5% of the vote obtained by "other" parties.

The SPP indeed got the last MEP. The next to last was the Centre Party's 4th MEP with a d'Hondt quotient of 96543.5 votes, over the SPP's 94326. The SPP only needed to increase its vote share to 5.83% to get the 13th seat. This is only 2.2% larger than the 5.7% that it did get.

Belgium does have minority constituencies. The German-speaking minority is tiny and yet it gets to elect one seat in the EP. So there is clearly a precedent.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Nov 5th, 2007 at 09:12:39 AM EST
A bit of number crunching gives me that no. 15 would have been a Green League candidate with a quotient of 86,334, so the SPP had a relatively comfortable margin. Still, they were already concerned about the prospects of losing the seat in 2004. Might be able to squeak by in 2009.

I thought the Belgian example was interesting, as I had been under the impression that they were guaranteed a certain number of seats in the federal parliament, but apparently they're not.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Mon Nov 5th, 2007 at 09:52:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Currently, the EP is a parliament of the nations. My gut reaction is that I personally can see a lot of value in adding some "transnational minority" seats, but there are probably philosophical implications that I haven't thought of. Of course, practical details would also need some hammering out.

Inside countries, it gets a little more complex. For example, in the UK, one might argue that the regional list system precludes any representation of minorities that are excluded from the major parties. (Who those minorities may be is for another comment.)

Instinctively I think it depends on the status of the minority in the country itself. One way to approach this is to ask "what's the status (and arrangements for) of the minority representation in the national parliament.)

Given the Finnish election system, it would thus be logical to suggest that an accepted principle of Swedish-language representation exists and it is in part the system used for EP elections that may change this and that deserves special legislation to fix.

However, by contrast, perhaps, the UK system offers no actual representation for non-geographically dominant minorities, so it's hard to argue they should introduce one there.

Coming back to where I started, I support the notion of "transnational minority seats" at least in concept because the Sami and the Roma clearly deserve some kind of representation, but it's very hard to make it happen through any of the national systems, due to their geographical spread.

One might wish that these groups were integrated enough into their countries not to need special representation, but I think that's pretty clearly not the case. Of course, that raises the issue of whether or not these "transnational seats" can be "set in stone" and I think it's where the concept does get into trouble. One can imagine and hope that the Roma will become much more integrated into various nations in 30 years time, at which point how do you then justify them holding any "transnational seats."

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Nov 5th, 2007 at 01:29:54 PM EST
In fairness' sake, I should point out there are some provisions in Sweden, Norway and Finland when it comes to protecting the Sami peoples. All three countries have their own Sami parliaments, and some television programming is available in the most spoken of the Sami languages (all Nordic countries having ratified the European Charter for Regional Minority Languages).

That said, like you, I'd be in favour of transnational seats. How to make that work in practice is another matter, of course.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Nov 6th, 2007 at 04:43:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The arrangement in the Romanian Chamber of Deputies is very interesting, I find. Per the Romanian constitution, all ethnic minorities are entitled to one seat each in the chamber; from this list I count some 18 minorities, some of whom are not particularly numerous, who are entitled to a seat in the chamber (plus the large Hungarian-speaking minority, whose party seem to fulfill a role somewhat similar to the Swedish People's Party here in Finland).

(yes, this a ploy to get my beloved diary some attention via the recent comments. I have no shame.)

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 06:53:16 AM EST
How is this implemented in practice?

Yes, I am a recent comments junkie

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 07:00:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good question. I've been trying to figure it out by perusing the Chamber's website. After a while I managed to find the relevant article in the Romanian constitution:
Article 62 (2) Organizations of citizens belonging to national minorities, which fail to obtain the number of votes for representation in Parliament, have the right to one Deputy seat each, under the terms of the electoral law. Citizens of a national minority are entitled to be represented by one organization only.

The electoral law of 2000 (PDF) (Chapter 1, Article 4) says that an organisation recognised by the government (a "legally constituted organisation of citizens belonging to a national minority") are entitled to one seat in the Chamber if they (on a nationwide level) manage to receive at least 5% of the average of the votes cast for the election of a single regular deputy. Such seats are thus in addition to the regular number of deputies in the chamber (314). How a specific candidate of said organisation becomes the deputy I'm not sure, but presumably the top vote-getter. The deputies are all, including the minority ones, listed as coming from one of the constituencies.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 07:43:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
By that last part I wanted to emphasise that although a minority deputy is associated with a specific constituency, he or she can nevertheless represent a minority that isn't necessarily contained entirely within the constituency. Maybe something similar could be implemented for the European parliament, which would allow for say "The Romani People's European Party" to win seats without necessarily gaining enough votes in a specific constituency.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 08:20:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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