Every five years EU citizens choose who represents them in the European Parliament, the directly-elected institution that defends their interests in the EU decision-making process. Voting practices vary across the EU, but there are also some common elements. Here is a brief overview of how Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) get elected.
The allocation of seats is laid down in the European treaties. It takes into account the size of the population of each country, with smaller countries getting some more seats than if strict proportionality would imply. Currently, the number of MEPs ranges from six for Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Estonia to 96 for Germany.
The rules say that some form of proportional representation should be used when electing MEPs. This system ensures that if a party gets 20% of the votes, it will also win roughly 20% of the contested seats, so both larger and smaller political parties have the chance to send representatives to the European Parliament.
Countries are free to decide on many other important aspects of the voting procedure. For example, some split their territory into regional electoral districts, while others have a single electoral district.
Countries in the EU have different voting traditions and each one may decide on the exact election day within a four-day span, from Thursday (the day on which the UK and the Netherlands usually vote) to Sunday (when most countries hold their elections).
Elections are contested by national political parties but once MEPs are elected, most opt to become part of transnational political groups. Most national parties are affiliated to a European-wide political party (see right-hand column for more information) so one of the big questions on election night is which of these European groupings will exert greater influence in the next legislative term.
In the 2014 elections main European political parties nominated for the first time their candidates for a president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU. The candidate of the party that won most votes (the European People’s Party) went on to get the Commission president post after obtaining approval in the new Parliament. Thus, by voting in the European elections, citizens not only had the chance to influence the shape of the Parliament, but also to determine who would be in charge of proposing and running EU policies.
A political party at European level is composed of national parties and individuals and is represented in several Member States. It is national parties that contest the European elections but they would often be associated to a European political party, and after the elections they would join a political group in the European Parliament with like-minded parties from their political family.