Since 1979, European citizens have been able to choose who represents them at the European Parliament. MEPs are elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year period under a procedure which, while not uniform, nevertheless operates according to certain common rules.
The forthcoming European elections will take place between 10 and 13 June 2004.
Sunday 13 June was chosen as the election date by the majority of the 25 Member States - Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden.
The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which traditionally vote on Thursdays, both opted for 10 June. Ireland will go to the polls on Friday 11 June, while voting in Latvia and Malta will take place on Saturday 12 June. And the Czech Republic and Italy will have an even more different system, with polling stations open over two days - 11 to 12 June and 12 to 13 June respectively.
Although most Member States have designated a single constituency covering the whole of their national territory, seven countries have a number of constituencies - 4 in Ireland, 5 in Italy, 8 in France (which recently changed its electoral law), 11 in the United Kingdom, 13 in Poland and 16 in Germany (where lists can nevertheless be drawn up at either regional (Länder) or national (federal state) level), while Belgium has three electoral colleges - French-, Dutch- and German-speaking.
The list system and proportional representation - common principles
The majority of Member States do not have a minimum threshold for the percentage of votes to be obtained by each of the officially registered party lists. However, no seats can be allocated in Germany, Denmark, France (at the level of each constituency), Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to party lists which have not obtained 5% of the vote. This threshold is 4% in Austria and Sweden, and 3% in Greece.
Some Member States (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden) also allow voting for candidates from different party lists - rather than for the set list of one party - or preferential voting for one or more candidates. Other Member States apply a system of closed party lists. And in Ireland, Malta and Northern Ireland (which has 3 of the 78 seats allocated to the United Kingdom), seats are decided using the single transferable vote (STV) system.
Dual mandate abolished
It is now forbidden to be a member of the European Parliament while being a member of a national parliament. Ireland and the United Kingdom are the only Member States to have obtained an exemption to this rule.
Other forms of dual mandate are also prohibited - for instance, someone who is a member of a national government, of the Commission, of the EC Court of Justice or of the Court of First Instance may not serve as a member of the European Parliament.
The right to vote and stand in the European elections
Any European Union citizen resident in a Member State other than his or her own is entitled to vote in the Member State of residence, under the same conditions as the nationals of that country. The minimum voting age in the 25 EU Member States is 18. However, the notion of "residence" is not subject to a uniform definition.
To be eligible to stand in the elections, a candidate must be a national of an EU Member State and fulfil the residence conditions laid down by the election laws of the Member State in which he or she intends to stand. Candidates must be aged at least 18 in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. The minimum age for a candidate in Austria is 19, and in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and the United Kingdom it is 21. Election laws in France provide for the minimum age to be 23, while in Cyprus, Greece and Italy candidates must be aged at least 25.
Some Member States have resorted to legislation in order to promote equal access for women and men to elective offices. In others, the political parties continue to lay down their own rules.
At the time of writing (i.e. before the June 2004 elections), the Members of the European Parliament consist of 220 women and 568 men. This amounts to a higher proportion of women (28%) than in most national parliaments: apart from Sweden, which is very close to having equal representation of the sexes (with 45% of women MPs), only the Austrian, Belgian, Danish, Finnish, German, Netherlands and Spanish parliaments have over 30% of women MPs.