What if: the EU had presidential elections like the USA?


Context: For those unfamiliar with the EP Groups, here is a quick rundown:
EPP – Center-Right, Pro-EU
SD – Center-Left, Pro-EU
ALDE – Liberal (in the European sense), Pro-EU
Greens-EFA – Greens and Regionalists
ECR – Conservatives, Soft Eurosceptic
GUE-NGL – Left to Far-Left, Soft Eurosceptic
EFD² (or EFDD) – Populist Right, Hard Eurosceptic
ENF – Far-Right, Hard Eurosceptic
NI – Others (outside groups)

The EU/USA analogy

There are two phenomena which converged towards the writing of this blogpost. First of, the recent US elections have put into question, yet again, the voting system used in electing the US president, where wining a majority of the votes can still leave one defeated.

Second, the recent Brexit referendum has stimulated discussions about patching up the real or perceived democratic deficits of the European Union, and one popular solution to this problem is the call for a directly elected European President. Given that the United States of America is often used as inspiration for Federalist proposals, I ran with this thought experiment.

What are Electoral Colleges

The US presidential elections are won by the candidate who wins the most “electors” on a winner-take-all-state system. That is to say, if candidate A wins the most votes in Texas, let’s say 56%, candidate A gets 100% of Texas’s 38 electors, not just 56%. The only two states that do not use “winner-take-all” are Maine and Nebraska (we’ll come back to these). There are 538 electors in total, 3 for DC and a number equal to the sum of its representatives (who vary according to population) and its senators (2 per state) for all the actual states.

Finding Electoral Colleges for the EU

The first problem with translating this system into the EU is finding the number of electors per each state. The “representatives” the EU system would be the MEPs (the ‘Members of the European Parliament’), but finding the number of “senators” is a bit trickier. The EU’s de facto Upper House of the Legislative is the Council of Ministers, which doesn’t have a fixed make-up. While it’s made up of a minister from each EU country, the minister in question varies depending on the subject of the legislation that needs to be voted on (i.e. if it’s legislation concerning internal affairs, the Council of Ministers is made up of each EU state’s “Minister of Interior/Home Secretary” – or equivalent). So a simple solution would be to add 1 elector to the number of MEPs.

QMV – a possible solution

One possibile alternative might be to take into account the Qualified Majority Voting (‘QMV ‘ for short) system of the Council of Ministers, and extract our “upper house electors” from there. Since the Lisbon Treaty, a passing vote requires a “majority of countries” (55% or 72% of them) representing a “majority of the population” (at least 65%) so there are no numbers to work with to get electors. Fortunately, up until 31 March 2017, countries can request a vote under the Nice Treaty’s system of QMV where each state had a fixed number of “voting weights”. So for example, the big 4 have 29 “weights” each, Spain and Poland 27, Romania 14, the Netherlands 13, and so on, all the way down to Malta’s 3, to a grand total of 345 “voting weights”.

So a possible solution for finding each state’s number of “electors” is to add up its number of MEPs with its number of “voting weights” from the Council of Ministers.

The easy way out

While the two examples above could make things interesting, truth is that just using the number of MEPs gives us about the same proportion of votes. See table further down.

The Belgian exception

Remember how Maine and Nebraska use a “per congregational district” system instead of a “per state system”? Given that Belgium is very polarized between its 2 main linguistic communities, I decided to apply a similar “per voting circumscription” system, and devolve the winner-take-all part to the 3 linguistic-communities/voting district.

I thought about doing the same for the French Overseas Territories voting circumscription, but given Frence’s centralist nature, I went with an “all in” approach.

Who won which state?

Now we get to the second part of the problem: applying our system to the 2014 European elections.

When people vote First-Past-The-Post versus Proportional Representation, voting patterns change, but since the European Elections are the only pan-European elections we have, I ran with the numbers of the 2014 EP elections. I took the the winner to be the europarty/coalition (basically EP Group) that got the most MEPs. When 2 or more groups had the same number of MEPs (as in the case of Cyprus), I took votes cast. Here is the result (as mentioned above, I used the numberof MEPs without any additions):

no. % no. % no. %
EPP 506 45.9 356 45.7 342 45.5
SD 228 20.7 165 21.2 160 21.3
ALDE 111 10.1 73 9.4 68 9.1
GUE-NGL 33 3.0 22 2.8 21 2.8
ECR 20 1.8 14 1.8 13 1.7
EFD² 102 9.2 74 9.5 73 9.7
ENF 103 9.3 75 9.6 74 9.9

Made in Inkscape. Inspired by the Fivethirtyeight’s Electoral College cartogram

Later edit: 2019 edition below.

Electoral college EU - 2019.png

16 thoughts on “What if: the EU had presidential elections like the USA?”

  1. Just as I was preparing the same thing for Ukraine’s elections 🙂
    Nicely done! The map is outstanding, great job aligning everything in a recognisable way (I’ve already learnt how much effort that specific task may require).


  2. This is very well done, congrats. Perhaps you should explain what the EU parties are. The abbreviations don’t mean anything to most of us from outside of the EU.


      1. Is it possible to move it nearer to the top? (Or perhaps to the side of the figure, if this is at all doable) This is a very interesting post, but I have to keep scrolling back and forth between the explanation and the chart.

        (Don’t worry about it too much. A minor annoyance! Very nice work)


      2. Also, a formatting comment: the colors on the figure don’t correspond to the colors on the chart you added at the bottom. This caused a moment of confusion for me when I thought that the EU was currently dominated by EFDD!


  3. You should have split the UK like Belgium too, to reflect its four distinct nations and their very different political outlooks


    1. The UK is leaving and will probably never take part in another EU election, so probably shouldn’t even be on here.

      Besides, the only nation of the four with different political outlooks is Northern Ireland. The other 3 have the Conservatives as the largest or second largest political party.


      1. Well, given that it’s based on the 2014 EP elections, and Article 50 isn’t invoked yet, I chose to keep the UK.

        Also, splitting the UK into the 4 nations would have yielded a different winning euro-party in each:
        * England – EFDD (UKIP)
        * Wales – SD (Labour)
        * Scotland – Greens-EFA (SNP+Greens)
        * Northern Ireland – GUE-NGL (Sinn Fein)


      2. Wales’s 2nd biggest party is Plaid Cymru (Nationalist) after Labour which are both are Pro EU. Makes a mockery of the Brexit decision I know but the truth none the less.


  4. Giving Luxembourg six electoral college votes and Germany 96, gives a vote imbalance to someone in Luxembourg of about 10 to 11x times the weight of someone from Trier, Germany right next door. California and Wyoming don´t have anything close to that imbalance with of 3.5 to 4. When the US system was devised the imbalance was 1.5 to 1.7 and has drifted to more extreme imbalance with urbanization and the accession of low density western states.

    Something like an EU electoral college could force consensus candidates, but it would still be far from fixing the EU´s democracy deficit problems.


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