A mural reading ‘The Future is Europe’
A mural reading ‘The Future is Europe’ is displayed near EU institutions ahead of the European parliamentary elections, in Brussels on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

What’s happening?

More than 400 million Europeans are eligible to vote for a new European Parliament in elections that are being held across the 28 member-states of the European Union (EU), beginning May 23. Depending on where they live, voters will be casting ballots then or over one of four days, ending on May 26.

What are they voting for?

There’s a European Parliament that sits in Strasbourg and has a five-year term. Altogether, the voters will be electing 756 Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs as they’re known.

Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini
Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini Image Credit: AFP

Matteo Salvini’s comments on Tuesday may have been a bid to retake the initiative; Brussels-bashing is a popular campaign theme for both Five Star and the League.


What do MEPs do?

Just like in national parliaments, MEPs propose and debate legislation, except that this legislation covers each of the current 28 member-states of the EU. The MEPs also select the members of the European Commission — that’s the cabinet-like structure that oversees the day-to-day running of the EU.

What else do they do?

The MEPs also formulate the budget, but don’t have the final say — that’s up to the European Council. The European Council is a fancy way of referring to a meeting of the political leaders of each of the member-states — the prime ministers, chancellors or presidents of each EU member.

Is it a big deal?

Yes, or at least it’s supposed to be. Direct elections for the European Parliament have been held for the past 40 years. Voter turnout used to be more than 70 per cent, but voters are a little jaded with the European project at the moment and voting levels have fallen.

Mark Rutte
The Netherland’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte Image Credit: Bloomberg

Mark Rutte said last Friday that the EU is far from perfect, “but we cannot afford to turn our back on it.


How does the voting work?

The simple answer is that it depends on where you live. Some nations choose from national lists, some vote for party lists, some vote in multi-seat constituencies, some vote in large geographical areas. Each EU nation is free to set its own rules on how the MEPs are elected.

How many MEPs do nations elect?

Again, that depends on where you live and also on the national population of each EU nation. But the smaller countries, like Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg get to elect six MEPs. A large nation like Germany elects 96 members, France has 79, Spain 59 and Italy 76. The United Kingdom is electing 55 MEPs.

But the UK is leaving the EU ...

Yes, though a date hasn’t been set firmly yet. But because the UK requested and was granted an extension to its leaving date — it was supposed to have been last March 29 — one of the conditions for an extension was that it take part in the European Parliament elections. When the Brits do leave, the 55 British MEPs will leave the parliament in Strasbourg then.

Strasbourg? That’s not a capital city ...

No. It’s a small city in the east of France on the banks of the River Rhine. It was chosen for its symbolism. Western Europe had been ripped apart by three wars involving Prussia, later Germany, and France, and the Alsace region had swopped between the two. In part, the European project was developed to ensure that never again would war ravage its nations.

Image Credit: Gulf News

So, MEPs vote along national lines?

No. There would be little point in that. What power would six MEPs from Malta have when it comes to issues in a parliament with 756 members? Instead, MEPs group together along ideological lines.

Ideological lines? What does that mean?

Generally, MEPs that believe in social democracy band together, so to centrists, so too those on the Left, and so too those on the Right.

How does it work?

Well, in the past, the centrists Christian Democrats and the centre-of-left Social Democrats have both formed the largest groupings and together they have generally reached a consensus on how things should work. But that may not happen in this next parliament.

Why not? What’s different.

Well, if you believe in the opinion polls, parties on the Right across Europe — those who are generally opposed to the EU and its free movement of people — may gain as much as 35 per cent of the seats in the new European Parliament. If that does indeed happen, the overall majority enjoyed previously by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats will be gone. That would likely make the new parliament much more confrontational than before.

What difference will that make?

That’s hard to say until the results are in. But up to this, the EU has always worked by finding a consensus on issues. That often takes time, which is one of the things that frustrate those who want to see a greater European integration. That consensus-building also give ammunition to critics, who say that the EU is becoming too big, too invasive, too involved in national issues.

Issues like what?

Right now, immigration is an issue. In Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France, the UK, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Spain, there are parties who are opposed to refugees and are also anti-Muslim. They want to change the EU’s fundamental principles of allowing for the free movement of people across the 28-member bloc.

Is that a bad thing?

Yes. The EU together provides a common market for more than 550 million people and is the third-largest trading bloc in the world, behind the United States and China. Its success is based on being able to move goods across national boundaries and sell them anywhere. So too with people being able to live and work anywhere across the EU. Change one freedom and the balance of the successful structure is weakened.

So, do the winners get to run the EU?

Not really. Well, maybe. Parliament’s leaders say they are the heart of European democracy. National leaders scoff at the 43 per cent turnout in the 2014 EU elections. In practice, states wield most power and little happens that big countries dislike.

But there will be winners and losers?

The EU Executive Commission is led by Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. A historic power struggle between parliament and the council will get an airing in the election. Parliament has pledged to force the council to nominate as Juncker’s successor a lead candidate from a winning party in the vote. Leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron say they will not be bound by that. Parliament could reject the Council’s Commission nominee.

So, who really runs the EU?

Ah, well. It’s complicated. But the voting and lead candidate rumpus is part of horse-trading among governments to get compatriots or allies into top positions, not just in the Commission and Council, but also in the European Central Bank. Germany and France, the two biggest states, have the most clout, but even the smallest can play. Juncker is the third EU chief executive from little Luxembourg.

But will the elections change much?

A push by Eurosceptics could mean a bigger, more cohesive minority to disrupt EU legislation. But EU optimists say a campaign that grabs more people’s attention could reinvigorate post-Brexit efforts to pull the EU together. Polls suggest the far-right could increase its share, but probably not enough to sound the death knell for the EU. It seems improbable that either camp, for or against closer integration in Europe, can land a knockout blow.

— With inputs from agencies