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How European parliamentary elections work

Members of the European Parliament are directly elected for five years. Each country has its own election rules but some common provisions apply.

The next European elections take place on 23-26 May 2019 giving all adult EU citizens the
opportunity to select who will represent them in the European Parliament.

What is the European Parliament?

The Members of the European Parliament are elected every five years. The world’s only directly elected trans-national assembly, the Parliament represents the interests of EU citizens at the European level. It elects the President of the European Commission, appoints its Commissioners (as a college) and holds them to account. It passes laws for our protection and budgets on our behalf. It represents us abroad and acts on our petitions. The discourse of its Members shapes our political and social agenda upholding the values of the Treaty of the European Union:

The European electoral system

The rules say that some form of proportional representation should be used when electing MEPs. This system ensures that if a party gets 20% of the votes, it will also win roughly 20% of the contested seats, so both larger and smaller political parties have the chance to send representatives to the European Parliament.

Countries are free to decide on many other important aspects of the voting procedure. For example, some split their territory into regional electoral districts, while others have a single electoral district.

What are the political groups in the European Parliament?

Although elected by country, Members of the European Parliament sit in political groups based on a shared platform and identity, which gives individual Members greater influence. Parliamentary rules require that each group has at least 25 Members and represents at least a quarter of EU Member States. Political parties in the Member States generally confirm their allegiance to an existing group, or their intention to form or to join a new one, at the outset of the election and often campaign together to at least some extent. There are eight groups in the current Parliament.

What are lead candidates (spitzenkandidaten)?

Since 2014 the political parties have been encouraged to agree a lead candidate or ‘spitzenkandidat’ to lead their election campaign throughout the EU and to be the official candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. The lead candidate nominated by the Council, and able to command a majority in Parliament, will be elected President of the European Commission by a vote of Parliament.

What happens immediately after the election?

In the days immediately following the results, the new Members of the new Parliament work to form political groups. The political composition of the new Parliament may require new allegiances to be formed and new groups may emerge. At its first plenary session, the new Parliament will elect a new President of the European Parliament. The new Parliament will then elect the new President of the European Commission and later will examine and approve the entire Commission.

Casting your vote

Although there are some common rules regarding the elections, some aspects can vary by country, such as whether it is possible to vote by mail or from abroad.

Specific details such as who the candidates will be and where your local polling station will gradually become available. For the latest data, check with your national election authority.

If you live in another EU country, you should be able to vote for your MEP there. If your country of origin allows voting from abroad, you might also have the option to vote there instead.

How many MEPs from each country?

The allocation of seats is laid down in the European treaties. It takes into account the size of the population of each country, with smaller countries getting more seats than strict proportionality would imply. Currently, the number of MEPs ranges from six for Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus to 96 for Germany.

Voting days

Countries in the EU have different voting traditions and each one may decide on the exact election day within a four-day span, from Thursday (the day on which the Netherlands usually vote) to Sunday (when most countries hold their elections).

Who runs in the elections?

Elections are contested by national political parties but once MEPs are elected, most opt to become part of transnational political groups. Most national parties are affiliated to a European-wide political party (see below for more information) so one of the big questions on election night is which of these European groupings will exert greater influence in the next legislative term.

Having a say on who will top the Commission

In the 2014 elections main European political parties nominated for the first time their candidates for a president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU. The candidate of the European People’s Party went on to get the Commission president post after obtaining the approval of a majority in the new Parliament.

Thus, by voting in the European elections, citizens not only had a say on who would be in charge of proposing and running EU policies.

European political parties are expected to propose their top candidates for the 2019 elections as well.

European political parties

A political party at European level is composed of national parties and individuals and is represented in several Member States. It is national parties that contest the European elections but they would often be associated to a European political party, and after the elections they would join a political group in the European Parliament with like-minded parties from their political family.

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