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 was the Director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy and governance, fiscal, monetary and financial policy, climate change and geoeconomics. Under his leadership, Bruegel has been regularly ranked among the top global think tanks and has grown in influence and impact with a team of now almost 40 recognized scholars and around 65 total staff. Bruegel is also recognized for its outstanding transparency.

    A recognized thought leader and academic, he regularly testifies at the European Finance Ministers' ECOFIN meeting, the European Parliament, the German Parliament (Bundestag) and the French Parliament (Assemblée Nationale). 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 to the G20 high level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. He is also a professor (part-time) at the Solvay Brussels School of Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he teaches economics of European integration.

    He 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 was coordinating the research team on fiscal policy at Deutsche Bundesbank. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund.

    He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bonn and studied in Bonn, Toulouse, Pittsburgh and Passau. He taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh and at Université libre de Bruxelles. He has published numerous papers in leading academic journals. His columns and policy work are published and cited in leading international media and policy outlets. Guntram is fluent in German, English, French and has good notions of Bulgarian and Spanish.

  • 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.

Related content