Ten key questions to understand the European Elections

1. What is the European Parliament?

The European Parliament (EP), with 751 members, is one of the world's largest democratic assemblies and has played an important role in the European Union’s (EU) integration process. It is the only European institution directly elected by the European citizens and therefore also their most direct representative. Despite the new powers and competencies that it has acquired with the latest institutional reform brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament still cannot be compared to a national parliament. It has only limited powers over the budget and has no right of legislative initiative of its own, although it may ask the Commission, the institution that retains the prerogative, to put forward legislative proposals.

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Source: wikipedia, author: Cédric Puisney

2. What are its competences?

The European Parliament has three basic competences: the discussion and adoption of the European legislation, jointly with the Council; the discussion and approval of the EU budget together with the Council; and finally, to exercise a democratic oversight over the other European institutions. Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the vast majority of the EU legislation is decided in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure (formerly known as the co-decision procedure), according to which any proposal from the Commission needs the approval of both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The EP can accept, amend or reject any legislative proposal. The European Parliament’s weight has increased in the recent years in such sensitive policy areas such as agriculture, energy, immigration, European funds, justice and home affairs or police cooperation.

Now that the Lisbon Treaty is in force, the EP decides on the EU budget together with the Council, which means that it can not only decide on the quantity and where the budget line items go, but also monitor how the Commissionimplements the budget.

Finally, the EP scrutinises the Commission’s and Council’s work, although its capacity remains limited. It does so mainly by public hearings, and by submitting oral or written questions. The Commissioners, the representatives of the rotating Council Presidencies and the European Council’s Permanent President regularly appear before the Parliament to give explanations.

With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the Member States shall also take into account the composition of the Parliament at the time of electing the President of the Commission. The EP can either accept or reject the entire Commission - it may not make individual nominations- and it can even file a motion of censure against the entire Commission if the EP considers it no longer trusts it.

3. How is it organized and who are the key players?

After being elected, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) usually join a Europe-wide political group that fits with their political ideology. Similarly to the national parliaments, these groups position themselves on the right-left axis. Other MEPs, who prefer not to join a political group or are not able to do so, stay in the non-aligned group.

The current seven groups on EP are:

- Group of the European People’s Party (EPP): Christian-democrat alliance uniting centre and right parties that stand for “a free market economy with a social consciousness”, which promotes liberalism and individual freedom.

- Group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D): Centre-leftunion of labour and social democrats parties pursuing that defends the principles of freedom, equality, solidarity, diversity and fairness. As a consequence of the crisis, their main goals today are to fight unemployment and to make markets fairer.

- Group of Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE): Liberal group with a progressive agenda placed in the centre of the political spectrum that supports the defence of market economy in a more integrated Europe. They also stand for a greener more competitive economy.

- Group of Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA): Coalition of two progressive parties: the ecologist and socialist European Greens Party, which pursues a more sustainably developed Europe and does not want to subordinate social rights to economic interests; and European Free Alliance, an association of progressive nationalistic parties representing stateless nations and minorities.

- Group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR): Group of centre-right parties promoting free market and liberal economy but advocating for national sovereignty and integrity of states. They oppose European Federalism defending the sovereignty of EU Member States.

- Group of European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL): Confederation of left parties that are very critical of a European Union based on market-oriented logic of competition. They stand for socially equitable, peaceful and sustainable European integration process based on international solidarity.

- Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD): Eurosceptical group that is opposed to further integration. EFD demands respect for national sovereignty, is very critical of the so-called bureaucratization of Europe rejecting the creation of a “centralised European superstate”.


4. How is the European Parliament elected?

There is no “single European political space” despite the EP being elected by universal suffrage of all the citizens of the Union. Although the parliamentary groups resulting from these elections play their role at the European level, voterers give their vote to the national parties, which then, if they are successful and have enough seats, will form a group by making coalitions with other parties with a similar ideological line.

Depending on the electoral tradition in each Member State, there may be a single constituency for the entire State (usually the small countries, with the exception of Spain) or there may be multiple decentralised districts (Germany, Italy, Poland, Belgium, France, Ireland and the UK).

Member States also differ in the process of nominating candidates. While some states allow choosing a candidate or choosing between their preferences in an open list (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland and Sweden), others configure their voting system by allowing the vote to parties (Germany, Spain, France, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, United Kingdom with exception to Northern Ireland and Romania).

The election period is determined by the EU although the Member States are free to choose a day within that period in order for the elections to be held according to their national agendas.

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Source: flickr, author: Jon Worth

5. What is special about the European elections, in comparison to the national ones?

The voting behaviour in the European Parliament elections over many years tells us that the voters usually see these as being elections of little relevance and with little impact on their daily lives. It is for this reason that the turnout is lower than in national elections, and in some cases there has been dispersion of votes. Moreover, the voters often use the EP elections as an opportunity to sanction or to reward the incumbent governments.

The turnout has been gradually declining since 1979, despite the fact that the capability of the European Parliament to influence the decision-making process has increased over time significantly and has taken a definitive step forward with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. In the citizens’ mindsets, the European institutions have been perceived as distant and alien to their daily lives. Due to this perception, voters have lacked enough incentives to go to vote and European elections have been seen as a second order elections with little relevance. Participation in the national elections is higher as these are perceived as closer to the people; the voters know the faces of those who they voted for and a priori, ideology plays a more important role.

Because there is a perception of the European Parliament elections as being irrelevant, the voters tend to exercise the right to vote more “sincerely” and with less thought to casting a “useful vote”. That is to say, voters that would choose state-wide parties with government tradition in national elections, might vote for smaller parties with which they may feel more identified in the European Parliament elections.

Finally, it is also quite common for the governing parties to lose the elections to the European Parliament. Electoral campaigns are usually rooted in national context; and therefore, the elections often function as a barometer of confidence in the governing party. For this reason, they may decide to reward or punish (usually punish) the party in the office, without causing any short-term consequences.

6. What is special about the 2014 European Elections?

These elections to the European Parliament are special because they are the first ones to be held after the adoption and entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty; as well as because they are the first ones to be held after the EU accession of Croatia.. These two changes meant that the number of MEP is reduced to 751 and that there is a new distribution of seats in the European Parliament, for example, Spain goes from 50 to 54 MEPs and Germany from 99 to 96.

The other novelty is that the Lisbon Treaty states that European Council should take into account the outcome of the elections when it proposes the President of the Commission; which could mean that the President of the Commission will be chosen from the winning political family of the elections. In order to bring the European elections closer to the citizens and to make them more similar to the national elections, European political parties have decided to nominate their candidates for the Presidency of the Commission, which is a novelty compared to the previous elections.

In addition to the nomination of the candidates, there were some political parties which took a step further in the process of choosing their candidate. The Greens for instance, decided to involve their voters in the appointment of their candidates through a primary European level online election.

The final novelty in these European elections have is based in the importance being given to them institutionally. Officials of the EU institutions, emphasise that this upcoming elections will be critical for the future of Europe. As the European Parliament’s spokesman Jaume Duch recently said, “the next European elections are more political than all the previous ones”.

The economic devastation and the high social costs caused by the crisis has led to increased activity and visibility of populist eurosceptic parties - a phenomenon that poses a serious challenge for the continuity of the European Union and the EU institutions.

7. Are we going to see an increase of euroscepticism/europhobia? What about the extreme right?

Although it should not be underestimated, the threat of euroscepticism is in reality weaker than one is sometimes led to believe. First of all, these groups are extremely diverse, for example, eurosceptics from the UKIP are not the same as the French extreme-right National Front; and the ideology of a Czech nationalist has very little to do with the Danish one. One of the common features of these groups is, up to now, their incapability of forming durable alliances in the European Parliament and working with the others – a fundamental element of political life in the Eurochamber. While the eurosceptics have been capable of forming political groups in the past, at least of some durability, such as the Europe of Conservatives and Reformists and Europe of Freedom and Democracy during the 2004-2009 parliamentary term, the extreme right has never managed to form an alliance that has lasted a whole term. They managed to form a political group in 2007 but the alliance felt apart after 11 months because of racist comments.

Secondly, the eurosceptic ideology has always been present in the European Parliament, usually achieving between 15 and 20% of the votes. This percentage has not increased significantly throughout the years, as eurosceptics have done well at some elections and have suffered losses at others. Historically not eurosceptic, most of the extreme right is now either resolutely opposed to the EU or wary of it in its current form. They are politically relevant in less than half of the 28 EU member states and may be expected to achieve between 34 and 50 seats out of 751.

As mentioned above, there is some reason for concern. Despite the possibility that these parties could be marginalised in the parliamentary work at the European Parliament, in the past, they have proved able to influence the agenda of the traditional parties, particularly on such sensitive issues as immigration or European integration, and forcing the latter to reverse the wording of their discourses.

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Source: flickr, author: Blandine Le Cain

8. How is the European Parliament elected in Spain?

The Spanish political system is based on a multi-party system both on the national and on the regional level. However, in the Spanish context it is often spoken of bipartidismo, because the political scene is dominated by two mainstream parties - the Partido Popular (PP) on the centre-right and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) on the centre left. Since the end of the dictatorship, these two parties have taken turns in government or in opposition, providing stability to the political system. The other main state-wide parties represented in the national parliament are Izquierda Unida (IU) and the newcomer UPyD. Additionally, regional parties particularly from Catalonia and the Basque Country but not solely, play an important role on the national level.

In contrast to the national elections, the Europeans are organised in a single district, which is quite unusual for a country of this size in the European context. The electoral system is proportional (d’Hondt formula) and there is no legal threshold. Although the system somehow favours smaller parties, the major state-wide parties are still overrepresented in terms of difference of percentages between obtained votes and seats and the smaller parties are underrepresented. These smaller parties usually tend to merge or form strategic electoral alliances with each other, not always responding to converging political orientations or shared electoral programs, but in order to increase the chances of obtaining representation in the European parliament. The party lists are closed and blocked.

In 2009, Spanish voters elected 50 members to the European Parliament and they will elect 54 in 2014, due to changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty.

9. Which are the main subjects of the Spanish Campaign?

The European election campaign in Spain is marked by the economic and social costs of the crisis. According to a survey conducted by CIS in March 2014, unemployment is, the main concern of Spaniards (82%), followed by corruption and fraud (41 %) and the economic problems (28%). The pre-election debates have clearly been occupied by the different interpretations by the political parties on the origins and responsibilities of the crisis, and the consequences of the austerity recipes to reduce the debt. The weight of the Spanish financial rescue is also present. Therefore, although these elections are trying to promote a more European debate in comparison to the previous ones, the reading of the results will be internal. The Spanish Popular Party (PP) could use the elections as a way to measure the degree of public confidence the citizens entrust them with, after the already announced recovery of the Spanish economy. Its pre-campaign has been focused exclusively on Spanish issues as on the horizon of the big political parties there are the municipal, regional and general elections of 2015.

Besides the political and social debate, another major subject of the campaign is the democratic regeneration, which also has a double reading: on the one hand, the recovery of public confidence in the European institutions after two-thirds of Spaniards claimed not to trust in the European Union (according to the latest Eurobarometer); and the loss of trust in public institutions caused by the multiple corruption cases now under investigation in Spain. New political forces have emerged at national and regional level in response to the dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, and their presence in this European campaign will modulate the debate towards their political agenda, marked by the fight against corruption, the cuts on the public services, Spain’s decentralization, and the need for a democratic regeneration. However, if there is a common battle that will be fought by all the political forces concurring to these elections - it is abstention. The European elections turnouts have kept on falling in Spain, and in the elections to the European Parliament of 2009 it did not exceed the 46%.


10. What is at stake in Catalonia?

Catalonia lives a double crisis, not only the economic one but also the one related to its relationship with the central government. The debate on the economic and social cost of the European policies is one of the great themes of the election campaign that will, above all, have its own internal reading. The European elections are the first call to the polls since having approved the convening of the referendum on self-determination for the 9th of November in Catalonia. A popular consultation, which the Spanish government does not allow because it considers it to be anti-constitutional but that has the support of the two thirds of the members of the Catalan parliament, whose political formations are promising to move this political demand to Brussels .

The voting turnout in Catalonia in the European elections of 2009 did not exceed 37.5%. The community that has traditionally been pro-European, as the rest of Spain, is today one of the territories where the disenchantment with European integration has made a significant dent. The debate on the future of an independent Catalonia, hypothetically outside the EU, is one of the arguments used by the opponents to the process of secession. Although the beginning of the election campaign has cooled this issue down, the European elections will not escape this political agenda. However, its potential exportation to the European Parliament will not be significant since the Spanish electoral law foresees single constituency for the whole state, which means that the representation of regional political parties in the European Parliament is smaller than their presence in the Spanish Congress.

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Source: Wikimedia, author: Xavier Rondón Medina