United in diversity: Rules for the European Parliamentary elections

2009 elections - Institutions - 12-05-2009 - 11:58
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The 2009 elections could see over 350 million people go to the polls in 27 countries

A drawing with someone holding a jigsaw piece representing central and eastern Europe

The first week of June should see millions of people exercise their right to vote for Members of the European Parliament. The EU does not have a single electoral law for these elections and many details are decided at a national level. Nevertheless, a basic set of rules has been established, which ensures that all MEPs are elected by universal suffrage in free elections by secret ballot, on the basis of proportional representation.

The rules for voting in European elections have developed since the Assembly was first conceived in 1957. The six founding countries envisaged a "uniform procedure" that they and Assembly Members would agree. This never developed as intended and national election rules have subsequently governed elections.
In 1976, the then nine Members of the Community agreed on a more general "Elections Act" for what became known as the European Parliament. This said that MEPs should be elected for five years, elections must be held within the same week, between Thursday and Sunday and the counting of votes may not start until polling stations are closed in all countries. It also said that MEPs may not also be Ministers in national governments or European Commissioners.
PR, no MPs and a threshold to be represented
The Treaty of Amsterdam, which came into force in 1999, said that rules should be drawn up that follow common principles that would guide elections in the then 15 states of the European Union. A new election act in 2002 was first used in European elections for 25 countries in 2004.
All MEPs are elected by universal suffrage in free elections by secret ballot on the basis of proportional representation, rather than the first past the post system that had been used in some Member States and still is used for national elections.
However, countries can be subdivided into electoral regions to which proportional representation is applied. Ireland, the UK, Italy, France and Belgium use this system.
Countries can also impose a threshold not higher than 5% of all votes, at a national level, that a party or candidate must reach to be represented in the European Parliament.
Since the 2004 elections "the office of member of the European Parliament shall be incompatible with that of member of a national parliament".
The mandate held by MEPs is personal and "they shall not be bound by any instructions and shall not receive a binding mandate."
The 1993 Maastricht Treaty legally introduced the notion of EU citizenship. With it came the possibility for EU citizens to vote in local and EP elections in the country where they live, regardless of nationality.
Citizens can also run for office in EP and municipal elections in a country other than their home EU state.  
For the 2009 elections, aside from rules in the Elections Act, each country sets down more detailed national rules. Find out more by clicking on the country on the map in the first link.
More "European" elections?
German Socialist Jo Leinen chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee and regrets that the largely national procedures often go hand in hand with largely national campaigning.
The EP has demanded repeatedly that some MEPs should be elected "through European wide lists. Competing for these mandates would be a great incentive for political parties to put up a front runner for the European elections, to develop a programme for the five year term and to have a joint European campaign," he said.
The Constitutional Affairs Committee is working on new proposals to reform the Elections Act, with the aim of getting more consistent rules across the EU and making the election process more focused on EU-related issues.
The proposals are being prepared by British Liberal Andrew Duff and it will be up to he next Parliament to decide whether to propose changes in time for the 2014 elections.
REF.: 20090302STO50552