Pascal LeTendre-Hanns explains in brief, what the role of the Parliament actually is and also provides a breakdown of who’s who in the representation.
In May 2019, voters across the European Union will be heading to the polls to elect their members of the European Parliament. But what is the European Parliament and how does this all work?
Put simply, the European Parliament is one of the three main institutions of the EU, alongside the European Commission and the Council. Where the Commission proposes and drafts laws, the Council and European Parliament work together to amend and vote on those laws. When both the Council and the European Parliament agree on a new proposal, then it becomes law. Without the European Parliament’s consent, proposals cannot become law so the institution plays a key role in European democracy.
In addition, the President of the European Commission is elected by members of the European Parliament. The President’s appointees to the Commission are then approved or rejected as a group and the European Parliament has the power to recall and dismiss the whole Commission.
In a symbolic capacity, the European Parliament is deemed to be the “first institution” within the EU. This means that it is listed before other institutions in the Treaties and has a ceremonial precedence over other authority at the European level.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected every 5 years. Members are all elected on a system of proportional representation, though each EU member state is free to choose exactly which PR system it uses so there is some variation in how MEPs are elected between different states. Each member state has a number of MEPs roughly in proportion to its population.
Thanks to its approximately 375 million eligible voters, the electorate for the European Parliament is the second-largest democratic electorate in the world and the largest transnational democratic electorate.
It should be noted that the elections do not all happen on the same day. Instead the EU sets a narrow range of days in which the elections must be held and member states can choose exactly which day suits them best. For the 2019 elections these days will be from the 23rd to the 26th of May.
Normally there are 751 MEPs but if Brexit goes ahead then the total number of MEPs will be reduced to 705 and the distribution of seats will be slightly adjusted to make sure it stays proportional.
Nearly every MEP belongs to a national party established in one of the EU’s member states. When voters go to the polls for the European Parliament elections they are therefore faced with their national parties on the ballot paper. Within the European Parliament, however, each national party will be affiliated to a European party group. Therefore national parties group themselves by ideological affiliation in the European Parliament, not by nationality. There is good reason to criticise this disconnect between the form of political party organisation that voters see on the ballots and the reality within the European Parliament.
There are 8 party groups in the European Parliament. These are:
European People’s Party (EPP) – centre-right, Christian democracy, liberal conservatism, soft europeanism
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – centre-left, social democracy, europeanism
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – centre, liberalism, europeanism
European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) – democratic socialism, soft euroscepticism
Greens-European Free Alliance (G/EFA) – environmentalism, regionalism, separatism, europeanism
European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – euroscepticism, conservatism, right-wing
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) – radical right populism, anti-EU
Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) – radical right populism, anti-EU, nationalism
There is also an extra group of Non-Inscrits. These MEPs either do not want to be part of any grouping or do not have enough strength to form their own grouping. While there is no restriction on forming European parties (all the above groups have their own corresponding party), to form a recognised group within the European Parliament requires 25 MEPs from seven different member states. This is a key procedure as the groups get access to EU funding and committee states. The restriction therefore exists to ensure that only groups with a minimum threshold of public support can qualify for this money and influence.
To give a sense of the political balance within the European Parliament, the current number of seats for each party group are listed below:
- EPP 219
- S&D 189
- ECR 73
- ALDE 68
- G/EFA 52
- GUE-NGL 51
- EFDD 43
- ENF 35
- Non-Inscrits 21
Finally, polling for the European Parliament elections in different member states is already well under way with many candidates being announced across the EU. The most recent projections for the 2019 final result estimate that, in a reflection of European politics at the national level, the main winners will be right-wing populists and centrist liberals at the expense of the EPP and S&D.