1. What are the elections for?
The European Parliament elections determine who will represent EU citizens in the Parliament over the next five years. In total, there are 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), of which 73 come from the UK.
2. What do MEPs do?
Much like MPs in the UK, the main job of MEPs is to assess, amend and, ultimately, accept or reject legislation. However, the legislative process works differently to the UK. Specialist committees play a crucial role and most MEPs sit on at least one.
The European Parliament is one of three EU institutions responsible for legislating. The European Commission brings forward legislation to be debated. The Council of the EU, on which ministers from national governments sit, amends, approves and rejects legislation alongside the European Parliament. The Council and Parliament both have to agree for a piece of legislation to be enacted.
MEPs will also approve by a majority the next president of the European Commission. Should a candidate be approved or rejected by a small margin, British MEPs could be decisive in determining the outcome. This could call into question the legitimacy of both the president and the approval process should Brexit happen and UK MEPs leave the Parliament.
3. How often do they happen?
European Parliament elections take place every five years. The term of the next parliament will run from July 2019 to July 2024. The upcoming Parliament will be the ninth since MEPs began to be elected in 1979. The European Parliament is the only directly-elected body in the EU.
4. When will they happen?
The European Parliament elections will take place over four days from 23 to 26 May. EU member states hold their ballots on different days according to domestic election rules.
In the UK, the ballot happens on a Thursday, this time on 23 May. Most EU member states hold their elections on Sundays (26 May).
5. How did the UK vote last time?
6. When will the results be?
Although voting takes place on different days across member states, none can release its results until all the polls have closed at 10pm UK time. This is so that the results in one country don’t influence voting in another. That means, despite the UK and the Netherlands voting on Thursday 23 May, the results will not be announced until the evening of Sunday 26 May.
The votes in the UK can be counted immediately after the close of the polls on 23 May but they must remain a secret until 10pm on the Sunday. It is up to local election officials whether they count immediately or wait until the final day of polling. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, the first results in the UK came in—from the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber—at about 10.15pm on the Sunday. It is likely that the full results from across the UK will not be known until Monday evening, although most results tend to be announced in the early hours.
7. Why is the UK taking part?
The UK is taking part in the elections because it will probably still be a member state at the time they are due to take place. Had the government not organised the elections, it would have been in breach of its treaty obligations and subject to a legal challenge.
Article 22 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states that all EU citizens ‘have the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament’. Therefore, while the UK remains in the EU, its citizens remain EU citizens and have the right to take part.
The European Council decision on 10 April to extend Article 50 to 31 October reaffirmed that, if the UK has not ratified the Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May, then it has to hold these elections.
If parliament passed the Withdrawal Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill before 22 May, the elections could be cancelled. However, last minute cancellation could leave some EU citizens unable to cast a ballot, and could leave the UK government subject to legal challenge.
8. Who can vote in these elections?
UK and Commonwealth citizens, and citizens of any EU member state aged 18 or over who are resident in the UK are eligible to vote in the European Parliament elections. This is different to the franchise for general elections (and the 2016 EU referendum), where citizens of other EU countries who are resident in the UK cannot vote.
EU citizens resident in the UK can decide to cast their ballots for candidates in their home countries according to national rules on overseas voters. A number of states, including Italy, do not allow their citizens to vote abroad and they have to return home in order to do so. Most others allow their citizens to send postal ballots, vote at embassies or allow someone else to vote on their behalf (a proxy vote).
UK citizens resident in other EU countries are entitled to vote in those countries, or are able to vote by post or proxy in the UK as long as they have been a registered voter in the UK within the past 15 years. UK citizens resident outside of the EU are also entitled to vote by post or proxy under these same terms.
9. How do the elections work?
Great Britain uses a list system and divides the country into 12 electoral regions, with voters casting a single vote for their preferred party. Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for its three MEPs, where voters can choose their second and third preferences.
Political parties produce lists of candidates for each region and order the candidates according to who is their first nomination. The ‘closed list system’ used in the UK means that voters simply cast one vote for the party that they wish to support, and the parties decide in what order their candidates are listed.
As parties win seats, those at the top of the lists gain them first. The number of seats each party receives is calculated using the d’Hondt method of proportional representation. The party with the most votes wins the first seat available.
However, once a party has been given a seat, its votes are halved (i.e. divided by the number of seats it has, plus one) and whoever has the most votes after that gets the next seat. If the winning party gets substantially more votes than any other, it could also win the second seat. If that were the case, its total votes would then be divided by the number of seats it has plus one (three in total), and the process continues until all of the seats up for election are distributed.
10. Do elections work the same way everywhere in the EU?
No. Although the electoral systems used must all be proportional, member states can use different proportional systems. The ‘closed list system’ used in the UK means that voters simply cast one vote for the party that they wish to support, and the parties decide in what order their candidates are listed. However, a majority of EU countries use a ‘preferential list system’, allowing voters to cast ballots for both parties and individual candidates. Ireland and Malta use the same ‘single transferable vote system’ which is used in Northern Ireland.
In most member states (eg. Spain), MEPs are elected to a single, nation-wide constituency. In others, such as the UK, MEPs represent constituencies (one of 12 regions). Minimum age requirements, electoral thresholds, compulsory voting, requirements to stand for election, and the particular date and time of the elections differ across the EU.
The European Council has set out how the UK’s seats will be redistributed to other member states should it leave the EU. Of the 73, only 27 will be reallocated, reducing the European Parliament to 705 MEPs in total.
The fact Brexit hasn’t happened complicates the elections for those states earmarked to receive extra MEPs. Ireland, for instance, currently elects 11 MEPs, but when the UK leaves it will gain a further two seats. If the UK takes part this time but leaves during the parliament, Ireland and others will have to fill these seats. As a result, Ireland is electing ‘reserve’ candidates at this election who will take up the extra seats when and if the UK leaves.
11. How are parties organised in the European Parliament?
Unlike the UK, MEPs sit in cross-national groups that their national parties are affiliated with, largely based around shared political ideologies. For instance, the Conservatives sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group and Labour sit with the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. These groups tend to vote in blocs in much the same way as political parties do in Westminster.
Although most groups persist from one parliament to the next, new groupings tend to be formed in each five-year term. A group must have at least 25 MEPs from at least seven member states. There were eight political groups in the 2014-19 parliament running across the full spectrum from far-left to far-right. No single group is even close to a majority of seats in the Parliament, so coalition-building is part and parcel of how the Parliament works.
The views expressed in this explainer are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.