European Parliament Elections: what, why and who

Written by Mark Briggs on . Posted in Current features, Features

At the end of May the population of the European Union will go to the polls and elect 751 MEPs  to the European Parliament, to represent 500 million citizens in 28 member states. This will be the first election since the accession of Croatia, the first election since the Eurozone crisis swept the continent, and the first election under the auspices of the Lisbon Treaty giving the electorate a direct say in the presidency of the European Commission.

Why these elections are crucial

Brigid LaffanWhen people go to the polls to cast their vote everyone understands they are voting for a MEP, giving the populace a direct say in what they want the future of Europe to look like. However, the question of what people want from the European Union remains an open ended one with the electorate still adjusting to the concept of supra-national democracy.

“The EU isn’t a nation state but people tend to think in terms of scaling up to the European level, projecting onto the European level our national systems,” says Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the EUI. “Democratic institutions, processes and procedures are likely to be thinner at European level than they are at national level for reasons of scale, and because the national container still matters in politics.”

Such an undefined identity can play into a perception of shadowy technocrats playing politics far away from the problems that affect the continent.

“There needs to be more political choice at European level,” says Laffan. “I think we need much stronger accountability structures for what is done collectively at European level. More transparency over the way decisions are taken, how deliberative they are, how inclusive they are, who has voice, all that matters.”

Encased in the Lisbon Treaty is the requirement for the President of the European Commission, currently José Manuel Barroso, to be endorsed by a parliamentary vote, increasing the level of democratic accountability between top power brokers in Brussels and the electorate.

Although not specifically catered for in the Treaty the political groups in the European Parliament have (almost) all put forward their candidate ahead of the elections. The candidates will take part in a debate at the EUI’s State of the Union conference on 9 May, which will be broadcast live on RAI News 24.

The idea is the group that wins the election will have their candidate chosen as president of the Commission.

“Who wins is a big question because there isn’t a government being formed. So it is more difficult to argue if it’s narrow,” says Laffan. “If it’s clear and one of the big parties wins by a substantial majority then the winner is clear, but if you end up with five or six seats between the main parties then you don’t have a winner; at least in my view.”  Without a majority, and having already stated their preferred candidate for the post of president there could follow a long session of horse trading before we know who gets the post of President and the other jobs in his cabinet – Presidency of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Following the Eurozone crisis there is likely to be a significant Eurosceptic vote come the elections. What this means for the parliament will ultimately depend on the percentage of that vote. Polls suggest anywhere between 20-30 percent, with that vote split between the far left – who focus more the economics of the EU, and the far right – who care more about immigration policies.

That might be what the polls say, but the great unknown of this election is the turn out. Changes in the Lisbon Treaty are aimed to give more power to the directly-elected component of the EU – the parliament. However if turn out is low that may render the change a mere technicality.

“If these elections just hold the turn out or there is a decline in my view that is bad for the parliament because it makes it harder for the parliament to claim they are the voice of the people,” says Laffan.

Why vote?

Professor Alexander TrechselIt is not just these elections where turn out is falling. Across much of the developed world fewer and fewer people are going to the polls each election day. “Voting is low cost, low benefit. Low cost – you walk to the polls and cast your vote. Low benefit – if you live in democratic country where you get your vote and you don’t have to fight for it, often you don’t quite know what you are voting for,” says Laffan.

A distrust of politicians and politics plays a part in declining participation. As does apathy and a feeling that with 500 million people in the European Union, how much effect can one vote actually have?

“It’s a well-known paradox that if you know your one extra vote doesn’t change anything why would you vote, it’s a rational stance,” says Alexander Trechsel, Head of the Department of Political and Social Science and a Director at the European Union Democracy Observatory. Motivations to actually go to the polls range from a sense of civic duty, to a desire to articulate their satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and the knowledge that occasionally, an extremely small number of votes can actually make the difference.  “Elections remain the single most important event in democratic life,” says Trechsel. “But they only work if people vote.”


EUandIAhead of the European elections the EUDO team has developed euandi, an online tool to help voters identify the party that most closely matches their views.

The team analysed 250 political parties across the whole of the European Union extracting information from manifestos and liaising with the parties themselves to code their positions.

The tool asks users to respond to 28 statements on a range of issues and matches their answers to political parties both in their local political vicinity, and across Europe. The tool is available for every member state of the EU, in the 24 official languages of the Union. As well as statements that apply to the European elections generally there are two country specific questions for each user.

“If you want to capture this campaign you also need to be attentive to differences from one national context to another,” says Trechsel. “For this you need experts and this is the unique thing about the EUI, here we have the world’s best pool of European social scientists working in the same place.”

Trechsel headed a similar project in 2009, and since then voter advice applications (VAAs) have become increasingly widely used in domestic elections. In the last German Bundestag elections VAAs were used by 12 million people, which represents around a quarter of the electorate.

“We did it in 2009 and learnt a lot from the scientific information that came out of it,” says Trechsel. “What drives me as a professor in SPS is I want to learn something about the link between information and political attitudes, voting behaviour, the internet and campaign mechanisms that are not initiated by parties and top down behaviour.”

What is unique about euandi is that as well as matching their views with political parties users can match with each other using social media.  “Previously you could match yourself to a party but what nobody had ever tried is to allow users to find out where they stand politically vis a vis all the other users. We use the same algorithms for matching people to parties to match people to people and find out where their political alter egos live in Europe.”

By matching and connecting people with similar political views users can create a de facto political party. Unlike other VAAs that expire after the election euandi will allow researchers at the EUI to track any new communities created allowing them to test some long standing theories about mobilisation in the context of digitisation and the internet.

“Interest in politics has remained high, they are just not necessarily interested in electoral politics and parties and the way they work. This satisfies the curiosity, people are feeling lost, they don’t find themselves as easily anymore in the political landscape,” says Trechsel.

“Here we give them a tool in their hands that they can use for free and at their leisure that can help them find out more about themselves.”

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