Policy brief

Is Brexit an opportunity to reform the European Parliament?

Brexit offers a political opportunity for the European Parliament to reform the allocation of seats to member states. This Policy Contribution explore

Publishing date
27 January 2017
  • The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will have implications for the European Parliament. Seventy-three of its 751 members are elected in the UK. Brexit offers a political opportunity to reform the allocation of seats to member states.
  • The European Parliament is a highly unequal parliament: large countries are underrepresented while small countries are overrepresented. This is desired in the EU treaties. But the EU treaties also emphasise the importance of equality and equal treatment of citizens by EU institutions. Inequality of representation in the European Parliament has been criticised as reducing its democratic legitimacy. The European Parliament itself has called for increased “electoral equality,” or enhanced equality of representation.
  • We explore different options for reform and their implications for equality of representation and distribution of seats to countries. We do so within the constraints set by the EU treaties.
  • One option would be simply to drop the 73 seats currently occupied by MEPs elected in the UK. However, this would increase the inequality of representation in the European Parliament. We also consider other pragmatic options but they would not yield significantly different outcomes.
  • Alternatively, the allocation of MEPs to member states could be reconsidered with a view to reducing the inequality of representation within the constraints set by the EU treaties. We use two measures of inequality and perform a mathematical optimisation.
  • By one measure of inequality of citizens’ representation, the European Parliament would shrink to 639 MEPs. By the other measure, it would shrink to 736 MEPs. Inequality can be reduced by around 25 percent, making the parliament somewhat more comparable to the levels of inequality of representation seen in the British and French national parliaments. The European Parliament would still be twice as unequal, however.
  • We also consider the idea of a transnational list, an option that would require treaty change, and offer an online tool to explore other options that would require treaty change.
  • At a time of a shrinking EU budget and high levels of scepticism about the legitimacy and efficiency of EU institutions, Brexit offers an opportunity to reform the European Parliament to address some of the criticisms. However, we note that only a change to the EU Treaties would enable changes to make the European Parliament comparable to national parliaments in terms of equality of representation.


About the authors

  • Guntram B. Wolff

    Guntram Wolff is a Senior fellow at Bruegel. He is also a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. From 2022-2024, he was the Director and CEO of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and from 2013-22 the director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy, climate policy, geoeconomics, macroeconomics and foreign affairs. His work was published in academic journals such as Nature, Science, Research Policy, Energy Policy, Climate Policy, Journal of European Public Policy, Journal of Banking and Finance. His co-authored book “The macroeconomics of decarbonization” is published in Cambridge University Press.

    An experienced public adviser, he has been testifying twice a year since 2013 to the informal European finance ministers’ and central bank governors’ ECOFIN Council meeting on a large variety of topics. He also regularly testifies to the European Parliament, the Bundestag and speaks to corporate boards. In 2020, Business Insider ranked him one of the 28 most influential “power players” in Europe. From 2012-16, he was a member of the French prime minister’s Conseil d’Analyse Economique. In 2018, then IMF managing director Christine Lagarde appointed him to the external advisory group on surveillance to review the Fund’s priorities. In 2021, he was appointed member and co-director to the G20 High level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the co-chairs Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Lawrence H. Summers and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. From 2013-22, he was an advisor to the Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth. He is a member of the Bulgarian Council of Economic Analysis, the European Council on Foreign Affairs and  advisory board of Elcano.

    Guntram joined Bruegel from the European Commission, where he worked on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Prior to joining the Commission, he worked in the research department at the Bundesbank, which he joined after completing his PhD in economics at the University of Bonn. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund. He is fluent in German, English, and French. His work is regularly published and cited in leading media. 

  • Robert Kalcik

    Robert Kalcik works as research assistant at Bruegel in the area of Energy and Climate with a focus on innovation policy. A native Austrian, he previously worked as data analyst for an international consultancy supporting evidence-based policy making for education authorities in Australia and the Middle East. He conducted research for the Austrian National Bank, the University of Melbourne and the Sustainable Europe Research Institute.

    Robert holds an MSc in Economics from the University of Vienna where his master thesis focused on international environmental agreements. His personal interest lies in machine learning applications and open data.

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