Five years have passed since the last European elections; now we are going to elect our European representatives for the eighth time, since they were first held in 1979. All citizens in the 28 European Union member states who are eligible to vote may do so between May 22nd and May 25th 2014. Nevertheless, this year’s elections will be different from the last, held in May 2009, as the Treaty of Lisbon came into force on December 1st, 2009, just half a year later. Besides these new circumstances, there are several interesting facts and figures around this year’s European elections which will be uncovered in this article.
European Elections – what are we talking about?
Article 14 of the Treaty of Lisbon provides us with some answers, by stating that:
The European Parliament shall be composed of representatives of the Union’s citizens. They shall not exceed seven hundred and fifty in number, plus the President. Representation of citizens shall be degressively proportional, with a minimum threshold of six members per Member State. No Member State shall be allocated more than ninety-six seats.
This means that the future composition of the European Parliament (EP) will consist of 750 MEPs (Member of the European Parliament), plus the President. The population of each member state is a criterion taken into account in the MEPs distribution; which means that the larger the population of a member state, the higher number of MEPs it can elect. At the same time, smaller member states elect more MEPs per head. This results in the smallest member state, Malta, electing a maximum of 6 MEPs and the largest member state, Germany, a maximum of 96. In comparison to the 2009 elections, some countries will gain seats, other will lose seats and there are those that will retain the same number of seats. Germany, for instance, has to give up three sets, from its previous 99 to 96, whereas France will raise its seats from 72 to 74 and Spain from 50 to 54.
Following the 2009 elections, a discussion was held in the EU on whether to have at least some (25 extra) MEPs elected via an EU wide constituency. This EP electoral reform proposal, put forward by Andrew Duff MEP, from the United Kingdom, was not approved. Therefore, European elections for the European Parliament remain “national elections” where every EU member state holds its own European round of voting for electing MEPs. In the end, European elections are the sum of 28 national elections as opposite to the possibility of one “genuinely European election” throughout the EU.
Once the electoral results are out, elected MEPs will constitute parliamentary groups according to their general political orientation, which resonate certain political groups already present in most member states, such as the social democrats/socialists, conservatives, liberals among others. Citizens frequently assume, wrongly, that their national delegates form one national group in the EP and sit together. MEPs sit together in parliamentary groups solely based on political orientation, like in any parliamentary democracy.
Same elections, different electoral rules
Thus, electoral rules vary considerably among member states. Some member states enforce electoral thresholds, while in others voting is compulsory. While in most member states, 18 is the minimum voting age, in Austria it is extended to include 16 year olds. There is also not a common electoral date, so as to have a simultaneous election in all member-states: since traditions vary, the electoral process kicks-off on Thursday, May 22nd in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, followed by the Republic of Ireland a day later, on Friday 23rd. Citizens in most member states will go to the polls over the weekend, with a majority casting their votes on Sunday, May 25th. In the Czech Republic, France and Italy, the elections will spread throughout two days.
One of the most important changes differentiating this year’s elections from the ones of 2009 is that, this year, European political parties will count with European-wide frontrunners. The European Left nominated Alexis Tsipras, the Liberals chose former Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the European Greens conducted a European-wide open online primary election, as a result of which Ska Keller and José Bové were nominated while the Social Democrats nominated the current president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, as their frontrunner and, finally, the Conservatives just nominated former Luxembourger Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. This will be the first step for real European-wide election campaigns. However, voters will still not be able to vote for the top candidate if he or she is not a person of the same nationality (which means that it won’t be possible for a Swedish citizen to vote for Martin Schulz or Guy Verhofstadt). The only thing they can do is to vote for the same political party, in this case, for the Social Democrats or the Liberals in their country. But establishing the figure of a European frontrunner is meant to raise awareness for the European elections and to personalize European politics but will also impact on an important sphere of political action: the Presidency of the European Commission.
Setting up a new precedent for the nomination of “the President of Europe”?
According to Article 18 of the Treaty of Lisbon:
Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members.
This will be a very interesting post-electoral political event. Many interpret this article as determining that the next President of the European Commission (EC) will be automatically determined by the outcome of the EP elections. They argue that the European Council has no power to put forward any other candidate who does not hold a parliamentary majority. Thus the political party that wins the election (or, which is able to build a parliamentary majority afterwards) is the party that appoints the President of the EC. There are other voices who argue that the power ultimately still remains with the European Council, and therefore that the EP election result may be a factor in consideration, but does not have to necessarily determine the choice for the Presidency of the EC. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Lisbon is very clear in the point that the President of the European Commission has to be elected by the European Parliament. So, who will end up in the upper hand in this political game, if there are disagreements and dissonant opinions after the elections? We will all be expectant as to how different political players will interpret European law; but there may the case for a convergence of views from the EP and the European Council, which will make the process of choosing the next President of the EC much smoother. Otherwise, we might witness a new precedent that will impact on the nomination of future “European Presidents” in the years to come.
It’s your Europe
Another noteworthy aspect in this year’s European elections is the revived wave of Eurosceptic and the political strengthening of right-wing extremist parties, which may obtain an unprecedented electoral support in May and gain access into Strasbourg. The Euro crisis that hit Europe hard in the last few years represented a huge challenge for the EU: citizens are disappointed and have lost their trust in the policies and responses provided by European leaders and institutions. Many blame the European Union alone for unemployment, government debt, recession and austerity programmes. Some political parties have manipulate this anti-European discourse for their own purposes: Marie Le Pen and the Front National in France, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), Wilders in the Netherlands, the Finns Party, in Finland, UKIP and the British National Party in the UK, to name a few. They are not only characterized by their attacks on the European Union itself but they also by their display of xenophobic and right-wing extremism rhetoric, as a strategy to secure votes.
One last point that will be interesting to analyze will be voter turnout. When it comes to the elections for the European Parliament, the turnout has tended to be well under 50%, on average. A closer look at specific member states reveals an even worse record. After all, not only is it true that only very few countries have compulsory voting, but that one could also easily argue that citizens also have the right to abstain from voting. Naturally, though, a high turnout would provide the European Parliament with a renewed and stronger political power, its decisions and work backed by a high citizenry electoral participation.
Voting is one of the core democratic rights citizens hold. Looking beyond Europe’s borders, in many parts of the world, this is a right people are still fighting and dying for. Moreover, for European Union citizens in particular, the European Parliament is involved in many aspects of their daily lives. The decisions taken in the EP do affect our lives in a very direct and concrete manner. Even though member states diverge significantly in their governments’ efforts to raise awareness and provide information regarding the European elections, the Internet is a transnational tool available to the vast majority of citizens, providing them with vast, accurate and explanatory information. If citizens do wish to take Europe’s destiny into their own hands, they should definitely consider voting for the next European elections!