What’s the point of European Elections?

Posted on May 1, 2014 at 11:06 am,

With the European Parliament elections coming up on the 22nd of May, it’s worth asking what these elections are about. Not the personality and policy issues that will dominate the media, but what difference they actually make.

These elections take place in every member state of the EU under proportional systems (so the number of seats a party gets is roughly the same as its share of the vote). The UK, being one of the large countries in the EU gets about 9% of the 766 seats (although parties like UKIP, whose MEPs actively avoid taking part in policy-making, mean that our influence is significantly less than that).

The European Parliament is one of three main institutions that determine EU policy. The European Commission is made up of commissioners appointed by the member states (though they must be ratified by the Parliament), and runs the EU day-to-day. The commissioners, however, do not have a say in European Law. That is determined by the Parliament and the other institution, the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers is made up of representatives of the governments of the member states – usually the government minister responsible for whatever issue is under discussion. Most European legislation must pass through both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

How does the Parliament work?

So now we know what the Parliament is, and how it relates to the other parts of the EU, how does it work? The political parties that are elected to the Parliament are almost all confined to a particular country. And proportional representation means that the representatives from any given country will tend to disagree with each other. But this doesn’t mean that the Parliament is a mix of lots of micro-parties, because MEPs form groups of parties. A group needs to consist of at least 25 MEPs from at least 7 EU member states, and they have to be able to claim some form of common political belief. MEPs who are part of the groups get better access to the committees that draft European legislation, and have significantly more influence.

At the moment, there are seven groups on the Parliament, plus a number of Non-Inscrits – independents, or parties that have been unable to form a group. Let’s have a look at the parties and their make-up.

European People’s Party (EPP) The largest group, with 274 seats (36%), has members from every member state except the UK. It consists of centre-right political parties, like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats from Germany. It would be the natural home of the British Conservative Party, but they left it to form a more Eurosceptic grouping.

Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – also known as the Party of European Socialists (or the PES). The second largest group, with 195 seats (25%), is made up of traditionally centre-left parties, such as Labour in the UK. It has members from every member state.

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) is the third largest group, with 85 seats (11%). It consists of liberal parties (economically right-wing, but socially liberal), such as the UK’s Liberal Democrats. Its members tend to see themselves as centrists. It has MEPs from 20 of the 28 member states. 12 of these are from the UK Liberal Democrat party, and another 12 are from the Germany FDP – both of which have seen major electoral meltdowns in recent elections in their home countries.

The Greens-European Free Alliance is the fourth largest group, with 58 seats (8%). This group consists of Green Parties and left-wing regionalist parties, such as Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National Party. The MEP from the Swedish Pirate Party also belongs to this group. It contains MEPs from 15 member states. At the 2009 Euro Elections, it was the only group to increase its number of seats.

European Conservatives and Reformists is the fifth largest group, with 57 seats (8%) from 11 member states. 26 of its seats come from the UK’s Conservative Party. The group is right-wing and moderately Eurosceptic, and some of the member parties have stances on certain issues that would be considered extreme right in the UK.

European United Left-Nordic Green Left is the sixth largest group, with 35 seats (5%) from 13 member states. It consists of far-left groups. Sinn Fein sits in this group.

Europe of Freedom and Democracy is the smallest group, with 35 seats (5%) from 13 member states. 10 of these MEPs are from UKIP. The group consists of Eurosceptic parties, though only UKIP wants to actually withdraw from the EU.

Finally, the Non-Inscrits – MEPs with no group – consists of 30 MEPs from 11 countries, who are unable to form a group. They include far-right parties like the BNP, parties with no natural allies, like the DUP, and MEPs who are not happy with the group their party has chosen to join (there is one UKIP and one ex-UKIP MEP in this category).

If you want to vote from a fully informed perspective, it is certainly worth considering how the British parties on your ballot paper fit into the Europe-wide party structure.

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