The 2014 European elections: this time it's different
The European elections of 22-25 May 2014 give voters the chance to influence the future political course of the European Union when they elect the 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to represent their interests for the next five years.
When is election day?
Each member state has its own electoral laws and each one decides on what day its citizens will go to the polls during the four-day election period from 22 to 25 May 2014. British voters will turn out on 22 May to elect their 73 MEPs. Irish voters will choose their 11 MEPs the 23 May. The results from all 28 states will be announced on the evening of Sunday 25 May.
How many MEPs will be elected?
There have been 766 Members of the European Parliament since Croatia joined the EU in July 2013 but this number is being scaled down at the 2014 elections to 751 and will stay at that level in future. These MEPs will represent over 500 million citizens in 28 member states. The seats are allocated among the various states, by the EU treaties, on the basis of 'degressive proportionality', meaning countries with larger populations have more seats than smaller ones but the latter have more seats than strict proportionality would imply.
Why are these elections different?
As the European Union seeks to pull through the economic crisis and EU leaders reflect on what direction to take in future, these are the most important European elections to date.
They not only allow voters to pass judgment on EU leaders' efforts to tackle the eurozone crisis and to express their views on plans for closer economic and political integration; they are also the first elections since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 gave the European Parliament a number of important new powers.
One major new development introduced by the Treaty is that, when the EU member states nominate the next president of the European Commission to succeed José Manuel Barroso in autumn 2014, they will - for the first time - have to take account of the European election results. The new Parliament must endorse this candidate: it 'elects' the Commission president, in the words of the Treaty. This means voters now have a clear say in who takes over at the helm of EU government.
Of the 13 European political parties, five have nominated a candidate to succeed the current Commission President. The EPP has nominated Jean-Claude Juncker, former Luxembourg prime minister and former Eurogroup president, the PES candidate is Martin Schulz, current president of the European Parliament, the Liberals and Democrats have opted for Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and current Liberal group leader in the EP, the Greens have nominated a duo of current MEPs, French José Bové and German Ska Keller, while the European Left have put forward Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek SYRIZA party.
The new political majority that emerges from the elections will also shape European legislation over the next five years in areas from the single market to civil liberties. The Parliament - the only directly elected EU institution - is now a linchpin of the European decision-making system and has an equal say with national governments on nearly all EU laws.
The outcome of the 2014 elections to the European Parliament will for the first time in the EU's history determine who leads the European Commission, the EU's executive body. Candidates for the remaining Commission portfolios will also have to pass a tough parliamentary vetting process before they can take office.
Once the composition of the Commission is settled, MEPs will turn to their main parliamentary duties: the framing of laws affecting the everyday lives of Europe's citizens plus the setting of the annual EU budget, powers which it shares with the Council of Ministers (the 28 EU national governments) in something like a bi-cameral system. The Parliament also has powers of scrutiny or oversight over the other EU institutions: it monitors how they work and how they spend the taxpayer's money. Last but not least, Parliament acts as a sounding board for the public's concerns and can thrust fresh issues onto the European political agenda.
Here is an overview of Parliament's responsibilities and powers.
1. Procedure for appointment of the European Commission
This will be the first time the EU member states are required to take account of the results of the European elections before choosing a nominee for President of the Commission. The procedure will be as follows:
2. Legislative powers
MEPs are the EU's lawmakers: without their input and approval, most EU laws cannot come into being. With the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, Parliament gained real power over the final important policy areas - notably agriculture and civil liberties - in which it had previously only had a consultative role.
The main types of legislative power are as follows.
3. Budgetary powers
The European Union's long-term spending budget has to be approved by national governments and MEPs, then each year the two sides decide together how the annual budget will be spent. Policies such as agriculture, regional development, energy, transport, the environment, development aid and scientific research all receive EU funding.
Parliament is also responsible for checking later if the taxpayer's money has been used as intended and for signing off the accounts if it is satisfied. On numerous occasions it has demanded more stringent controls and in 1999 it forced the entire Commission out of office for budgetary mismanagement.
4. Democratic control and supervisory powers
A basic function of any parliament is the scrutiny or oversight of other branches of power, to ensure democratic accountability. The European Parliament performs this task in a number of ways.
In addition to its key role in the election of the Commission, Parliament holds hearings of the President and members of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank and of nominees for the Court of Auditors.
Parliamentary scrutiny of the ECB
To ensure the accountability of European monetary policy, the President of the European Central Bank reports to the EP Economics Committee every three months and also presents the bank's annual report to Parliament.
In its new capacity as the EU bank supervisor, the ECB will be subject to strong parliamentary oversight by MEPs, who will also be empowered to approve the top echelons of the supervisory body.
Parliament has the power to set up a temporary committee, either to investigate an issue of public interest (a recent case was the committee on organised crime, corruption and money-laundering) or to look into alleged breaches or maladministration of Community law.
To hold the other EU institutions to account, MEPs can ask oral and written questions. By this means the Commission and Council are regularly forced to answer queries, supply detailed information or take part in a debate in Parliament on specific policy issues.
5. Foreign policy and human rights
The High Representative for the EU's common foreign and security policy (CFSP) is accountable to Parliament, which has a right to be informed and consulted about the policy and can also use its budgetary powers to shape its scale and scope.
Parliament's consent is needed for any enlargement of the EU and for the conclusion of trade and other international agreements with non-EU states. MEPs also devote considerable energy to human rights issues and the promotion of democratic values around the world, the award of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought being the annual highlight of Parliament's work in this area.
The EP takes the lead in promoting transparency, openness and public access in the sometimes labyrinthine Brussels world. Every European citizen has the right to petition MEPs about environmental problems, disputes with customs authorities, transfers of pension rights and other matters, provided they fall within the European Union's remit. The public can also turn to the European Ombudsman - an independent figure appointed by Parliament - who has the power to investigate accusations of maladministration or abuse of power by an EU institution.
Debate, controversy and conflict are the lifeblood of any democratically elected body. The European Parliament - made up of politicians with sometimes sharply differing views - is no exception.
To harness this wide range of opinion and nationalities into a workable system, MEPs have always operated through transnational ‘political groups’, each made up of members from different countries but with similar political convictions. Cooperating closely with Members from other countries who broadly share their political views is the most effective way for MEPs to achieve their goals at European level.
There are currently seven groups in the EP, ranging across the political spectrum and representing over 160 national parties.
The groups are of central importance in the work of Parliament. They are the key players in building voting majorities on legislation, the budget and other issues. They set the parliamentary agenda and play the decisive role in choosing Parliament's President and other leading office-holders.
Under Parliament's rules, members of a group must share a 'political affinity' and must includea minimum of 25 Members from at least one quarter of member states (i.e. currently at least seven). Non-aligned MEPs - those who do not wish or are unable to join a group - sit separately.
A culture of compromise … and a balance of power
Never in Parliament's history has a single group held an overall majority of Members. So, in order to pass EU legislation and approve the budget, the groups must forge a workable majority through negotiation and compromise. Give-and-take among the groups is thus essential, although the larger the group, the more clout it has.
Group discipline in the EP is less strict than in some national parliaments:members of the same group sometimes vote on different (often national or regional) lines. However, as in national parliaments, the commonest political divides are left-right in nature. It is on European election day that voters will decide the balance of power between the groups.
Most of the current groups in the EP are affiliated to a pan-European political party and these parties are expected to put forward candidates for the post of Commission President.
Once the votes have been counted and MEPs are elected, what will their daily routine be and what influence can they have on politics in Brussels and Strasbourg?
To advance their voters' interests, the majority of MEPs will join a 'political group' to make common cause with MEPs from other EU states with a similar political outlook.
MEPs will also sit on a parliamentary committee, devoting their time and energy to scrutinising legislation. There are 20 standing committees in Parliament, each specialising in its own policy area. These bodies are the legislative powerhouses of the EP, where key negotiations are handled, the fiercest political arguments played out and the necessary deals often cut, although final decisions are taken by the full Parliament of 751 Members.
In addition, MEPs can be members of interparliamentary delegations, whose role is to nurture contacts with the parliaments of non-EU countries.
Office holders of the Parliament
The President of Parliament, elected from among the 751 Members for a two and a half year stint, represents it to the outside world, chairs plenary sessions and oversees all of Parliament's work. Fourteen Vice-Presidents share this workload.
A committee or delegation chair guides the proceedings of that body. A coordinator is the leading representative of his or her political group in acommittee, while a rapporteur is an MEP chosen to pilot a specific resolution or piece of legislation through Parliament.
Parliament's governing bodies
Responsibility for Parliament's internal management lies with different bodies: political decisions are taken by the Conference of Presidents, made up of Parliament's President and the political group leaders; financial, organisational and administrative matters are dealt with by the Bureau, composed of the President and the Vice-Presidents; administrative and financial concerns of Members are the responsibility of the College of Quaestors (a body of five MEPs elected by the House).
The elections to the European Parliament are still, to a large extent, organised according to national legislations and traditions. There are common EU rules which lay down that the elections must be by direct universal suffrage as well as free and confidential. Members of the European Parliament must be elected in the member states on the basis of proportional representation. But it is up to each member state whether it uses an open or closed list system.
Where voting is based on an open list system, voters can indicate a preference for one or more candidates on the list. This is done in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden. When voting with a closed list system, the political parties establish the order of candidates and the voters only cast their vote for a party. This is done in France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, Spain and the UK (except Northern Ireland). Meanwhile in Ireland and Malta, as well as in Northern Ireland, the Single Transferable Vote system is used.
Each member state may establish constituencies for elections to the European Parliament or subdivide its electoral area in a different manner. Most member states have chosen to consider the whole country as one constituency. Belgium, France, Ireland and the UK have several constituencies or electoral areas. In Germany, Italy and Poland votes are cast in separate constituencies too, but the election results are determined at national level.
The election period is determined at EU level but the exact polling date and opening hours for polling stations vary according to the national electoral laws.
Voting is compulsory in Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg.
There are differences among member states as to the minimum age for voting and the minimum age for standing for election. In several member states you can both vote and stand for election at the age of 18 (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden). But in Austria you can vote at the age of 16 and stand for election at 18, while in Italy you must be 18 and 25 respectively.
In some countries, such as France and the UK, pre-registration on an electoral roll is required. In many other countries this is done automatically.
EU citizens living in a EU country other than their country of origin are entitled to vote and stand in European elections in their country of residence but the national electoral law may lay down specific procedures on how to do this. Usually they are also entitled to choose instead to vote in their country of origin (for example, by post or at the embassy) but this also depends on the national electoral law. Commonwealth citizens, for example Canadians and Australians, whose names appear on the electoral roll in the UK are also entitled to vote. There are several examples of elected Members in the current Parliament who have stood for election in a country other than their country of origin.
According to EU regulations, there are several positions incompatible with being a Member of the European Parliament. An MEP cannot be a member of a national government or national parliament, nor an active official of the European institutions. Some countries lay down further incompatibilities.
The European Parliament: electoral procedures (EP fact sheet)
Some facts on previous European elections
The first direct elections to the European Parliament were held in 1979. Previously, from 1958 to 1974, MEPs were appointed by the national parliaments of the member states, with all Members holding a dual mandate.
The Decision and Act on European elections by direct universal suffrage were signed in Brussels on 20 September 1976. After ratification by all the member states, the first elections took place on 7 and 10 June 1979 and 410 Members were elected. Since then another six elections have taken place.
Elections are always held in new member states when they join the EU, to allow them to elect their own representatives to the European Parliament even in mid-term. This happened with Greece in 1981, Portugal and Spain in 1987, Sweden in 1995, Austria and Finland in 1996, and Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Elections were held in Croatia in April 2013 to enable that country's MEPs to take their seats when it joined the EU on 1 July 2013.
Past elections and turnout figures
The turnout in European elections since 1979 has varied significantly from one member state to another. While low in many cases, the figures are not dissimilar to those for local elections in many European countries. There has been a downward trend over the years but this is in line with a general decline in voting figures throughout the western democracies in recent decades.