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A beginner’s guide to the EU election

A beginner’s guide to the EU election

by host

With 373 million eligible voters — considerably more than the 233.5 million in the U.S. in 2022 — the EU election is a big deal, but even most Europeans find it hard to get their head round it.

So, we’re here to help walk you through it.

In 27 countries, voters will head to the ballot boxes between June 6 and 9 to choose the next European Parliament. The winning 720 lawmakers will have an important role running the EU, working on laws ranging from emissions targets to bank rules.

The first crucial job of the newly elected Parliament will be to approve or reject the 27 people who will run the EU for the next five years. That means giving the green light (or not!) to the president of the European Commission — currently Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, who wants a second term — and her team of commissioners.

This year’s election will also be significant as there is likely to be a sharp political shift to the right. That means the next five years could see a movement away from the EU’s environmental priorities toward more support for manufacturing, security and agriculture, and a tougher stance on migration.

Von der Leyen from the center-right European People’s Party — seeing she may struggle to secure a clear majority with center-left and liberal parliamentarians — is leaving open the door to working with the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group “depending very much on how the composition of the Parliament is.”

This hard-right lurch is clear from the polls. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is on course for a comfortable win and the populist Alternative for Germany is running neck-and-neck with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats in second place.

It can all get pretty confusing, but here’s POLITICO’s guide to the essentials:

What do you actually vote for? 

It’s one single election because voters across the Continent will collectively elect a total of 720 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

But really, these are separate national votes taking place in 27 countries, and there are slightly different rules governing the votes, too. 

The bigger your country, the more seats in the hemicycle chamber. German MEPs get 96 seats and the French get 81, while Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg only get six each.

You vote for a party that then (generally) sits with in an international grouping of the same political hue. So, if you vote for President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party in France, those MEPs will sit in the cross-border Renew Europe grouping with other liberals from countries such as Denmark and the Czech Republic.

The bigger your country, the more seats in the hemicycle chamber. | Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

To make things even more complicated, the European Parliament itself is based in both Brussels and Strasbourg, with MEPs doing the bulk of their committee work in Belgium, and most of the monthly sessions where they actually vote on laws in France. It’s very inefficient and the constant commuting is bad for the environment, but the two-headed Parliament is protected in the treaties and is good for French hoteliers.

How is the election linked to choosing the EU’s next leaders?

Crucially, the next chief of the European Commission — the executive body that proposes new EU laws — is supposed to come from the political grouping that wins the most seats in next month’s election, even if the top candidate is not necessarily a parliamentarian.

After the election, the new European Parliament must approve or reject the nominees for Commission president and 26 other national commissioners, who will lead the EU for the next five years. Germany’s von der Leyen wants another stint as European Commission chief and her center-right EPP is on course to win, but she still formally needs the nod from Europe’s leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, and then faces a nailbiting race to secure the 361 votes required to elect her in Parliament.

The commissioners (one from each country) oversee core EU policy areas: global trade deals, farm subsidies, antitrust fines against U.S. tech giants like Google and Apple and the potential enlargement of the bloc to include Ukraine. You can see the favorites already jostling for those top jobs here.

Parliament always likes to reject some candidates to flex its muscles. After the last election in 2019, the first French, Hungarian and Romanian commissioner picks came to sticky ends.

What do MEPs do? And what’s the point of the European Parliament?

The Parliament is one of the three main EU institutions, and the only one that is directly elected. The other two institutions are the Council, where the ministers and heads of government meet, and the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

What’s unique about the European Parliament, when compared to national parliaments, is that MEPs can’t actually propose new laws themselves, legally-speaking. It’s the Commission that has the right of initiative and writes the first draft of all new laws, which hands it a lot of power. 

MEPs wield their influence by amending legislation, and they also have a final vote on the laws as a whole, which they haggle over with representatives of the Council and the European Commission. 

Parliament is typically seen as the weakest of the three institutions, often not getting its way in the three-way “trilogue” negotiations between institutions.

What happens when an MEP wins?

When MEPs get into Parliament, they find like-minded politicians from other countries and form political groups. 

Currently there are seven groupings: The Left, the Greens, the Socialists & Democrats, Renew Europe, the European People’s Party, the European Conservatives and Reformists and the Identity and Democracy group. 

The winner of the election is the group that has the most seats after the poll, and that’s important because the EU leaders — think Germany’s Scholz, or France’s Macron — are obliged, according to the EU’s treaties, to take the election results into account when they put forward a name for what is widely considered Europe’s most powerful role: The European Commission president. 

No. 1 to watch is Ursula von der Leyen, who has been European Commission president since 2019. | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

If Parliament rejects the first choice, the Council has a month to come up with another name — though that has never happened and would spark an unprecedented political crisis for the EU.

Clearly, von der Leyen’s opponents will says that EU treaty language on “taking into account” the election result is very vague, which it is. But any nominee will ultimately need to secure Parliament’s approval — 361 votes or more — so national leaders cannot just pluck any old name.

In a nutshell: If your political family wins the election and has the single largest pan-European group of MEPs, not only does that give you more sway than the others to affect legislation passing through the Parliament but in those feverish first post-election weeks, it gives you a strong argument to claim Europe’s top job for one of your politicians, too. 

Who are the main characters?

No. 1 to watch is von der Leyen, who has been European Commission president since 2019 when she was plucked out of relative obscurity by French President Emmanuel Macron and the then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The former German defense minister is seeking a second-term on the EPP’s platform of boosting industrial competitiveness and strengthening the EU’s defense capacities in her campaign across the EU.

It’s also worth keeping tabs on her main rival Nicolas Schmit who’s been traveling across Europe connecting with Socialist and center-left voters, arguing for better housing, workers’ rights and not backtracking on the Green Deal. Schmit — who is Luxembourg’s outgoing European commissioner — has often refrained from attacking von der Leyen, who is, after all, his boss. But he’s launched a few tirades against her for opening the door to cooperation with far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in the ECR camp, and striking controversial migration-curbing deals with North African autocrats.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola — a center-right Christian Democrat from Malta — has been touring the EU to get out the vote, making a particular effort to woo youngsters to cast their ballots. She faces a grueling campaign in Malta, which is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding the governing Labor Party. She will be hoping for a return to the presidency of the Parliament, if not an even more powerful role.

What’s getting people worked up and out to vote?

While each country has its own national obsessions, there are some general themes emanating from Brussels, the political nerve center:

  • Russia’s war in Ukraine, and how to boost the EU’s own defense capacities; 
  • The sluggish EU economy;
  • How to make the EU’s ambitious climate and environment plans compatible with the interests of workers such as farmers and traditional industrial manufacturers;
  • How to make the EU more competitive on the world stage;
  • The EU’s recent migration and asylum pact;
  • The rise of the far right.

Typically, though, these elections fail to draw the crowds, and turnout is always lower than it is for national European elections — bringing with it a real legitimacy problem for the EU. The EU election typically sees lower turnout in Central and Eastern Europe than in richer northern and western countries. Last time around, the EU institutions were cheered by an uptick in turnout, even though it still only meant just over half of eligible people across the bloc voted.

So, what’s going to happen?

It’s hard to poll an entire Continent but the signs so far suggest that the European Parliament is in for a significant rightward shift — but that ultimately the current coalition of centrist parties should cling onto their majority. 

Not only are we likely to see a strong result for the center-right European People’s Party — which includes the likes of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, Spain’s Partido Popular, or Ireland’s Fine Gael — but also for the groupings to their right, where there are two hard-right to far-right groupings. 

That means the center of gravity in the new Parliament will not lie with the liberals, as it has since 2019, but with the EPP. We must stress again, this is if polls are accurate.

Signs so far suggest that the European Parliament is in for a significant rightward shift. | Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The liberals — who are a loose coalition under the banner of Renew Europe — look like they’ll lose seats, as will the Greens, whose green wave five years ago is ebbing away.

Ultimately the two political factions that have long dominated Europe — the center-right EPP and the Socialists — will still be the largest two forces in Parliament, but we’ll see the continuation of the historical trend of their power being eroded.

The Greens’ opposition to major EU laws  — from the giant farm subsidy scheme to its new migration deal — partly explains why von der Leyen feels she could well have to collaborate with Meloni’s MEPs.  

Even winning approval reveals the number problems — as von der Leyen seeks 361 votes. According to current polling, the centrist bloc of the EPP, Socialists and liberals could provide her with 402 votes if she promises them some goodies. That is not such a comfortable margin, however, as she is in trouble if only 10 percent or so of those MEPs rebel against the party line.

It is likely to be a close run thing. You see, the EU election is a thriller, after all.

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