European elections: how they work and what's at stake


The results of this month’s European Parliament elections, which in France and 21 other countries are to be held today, will be a key test of political parties across the continent, where anti-EU, nationalist and populist groups have been gaining ground on traditional parties. For French President Emmanuel Macron, whose LREM party, strongly pro-EU, is fighting European elections for the first time, the outcome on Sunday will also be a test of the credibility of his ambitions for the bloc. But the polling also lifts the curtain on a series of new appointments to lead the EU’s major institutions, which will hang on the results. Ludovic Lamant presents a guide to how the elections work, and the detail of what’s at stake.    

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The elections to the European Parliament involve a total electorate of around 427 million from across the European Union (EU). The voting is held separately in each member state, over the course of one day, beginning in some countries on May 23rd and ending on May 26th, which is when France goes to the polls. They will decide the makeup of what will be the ninth five-year term of the bloc’s directly elected parliament, which was first elected in 1979.

The European Parliament, which is the only directly elected EU institution, is one of three EU legislative bodies, alongside the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. It passes legislation, working in conjunction with the Council which is composed of ministers from EU member states. The European Parliament and the Council are the principal decision-making institutions of the EU.  

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are only from EU member states (Britain will take part because it has not yet formally left the EU). The parliament’s home is the Louise Weiss Building in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, but it also meets at the Espace Léopold buildings in the Belgian capital Brussels, home to most other EU institutions.

The election of the parliament this month also raises the curtain on what will be a long period of negotiations through the year to appoint new heads of the EU’s key institutions.

One-day elections held separately over four days

The European Parliament elections began on Thursday with the voting in Britain and the Netherlands, followed on Friday by voting in the Irish Republic, on Saturday in Malta, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia, and on Sunday in the remaining 21 EU member states, including France.

Proportional representation

Since 1979, MEPs are elected directly in polls held separately in each EU member state. The elections are decided by proportional representation (except in the Irish Republic) and just one round of voting.

In France, as in many of the EU member states, candidates must garner a minimum of 5% of votes cast to be eligible for a seat (and a minimum of 3% of votes cast to receive public reimbursement of campaign spending). That is the case except in Germany, where no minimum number of votes are required, which means that small party lists of candidates (there are 40 lists in the country fighting this year’s elections) stand a better chance of gaining, for example, one seat.

In France, there are 34 different lists of candidates competing in the elections on Sunday.

Turnout in regular decline since 1979

Ever since the first elections in 1979, average voter turnout in the elections has constantly diminished, falling from 62% in 1979 (when there were just nine EU member states), to 56% in the middle of the 1990s (when the EU had grown to 12 member states).

Turnout has recurrently dropped below 50% since 2004, when membership of the bloc was enlarged from 15 to 25 member states. It was 45.5% in 2004, sliding to 43% in 2009, and 42.6% in 2014. There is no indication that that trend will be reversed in 2019.

A meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on March 26th 2019. © Reuters/Vincent Kessler A meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on March 26th 2019. © Reuters/Vincent Kessler

In France, turnout in the last elections, held in 2014, was 42.4%, almost the same as the average across all the participating countries.


The European Parliament elections this year are for a total of 751 seats, the same number as during the last parliament which sat between 2014-2019. However, once Britain has left the EU – and it has been given an extension to the previous March deadline to do so, currently fixed for October – the British electorate will no longer be represented in parliament. The 73 seats it is currently accorded will be automatically removed, while some countries will then be granted extra seats, bringing the total number of MEPs to 705.

Under that change, France will gain five seats, bringing its total representation to 79. In preparation for this, five candidates from among all the lists fighting the elections in France on Sunday will be elected on a stand-by basis, for when – or if – Britain finally leaves the bloc, the process dubbed ‘Brexit’.

Other elections being held in parallel to those of the European Parliament

In Belgium, the European Parliament elections on Sunday will be held alongside the country’s federal and provincial assembly elections. To a background of what appears to be a surge of support for the Greens, and also for the leftist Workers’ Party in the francophone Wallonia region, the national voting on Sunday may produce a situation of prolonged negotiations to form a federal government (which could see a rightwing government led by current caretaker prime minister Charles Michel, of the centre-right MR party, but which is dominated by the Flemish separatist N-VA – “New Flemish Alliance” – party).

In Spain, the European parliament elections will be held alongside nationwide municipal elections, and also regional elections except in Catalonia and Andalusia. One issue in these internal elections will be the score of the anti-austerity Indignados Movement of citizen platforms, which took power in Madrid, Barcelona and Cadiz in 2015. The former socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, who holds dual French-Spanish nationality, is attempting a political comeback by running for the post of mayor of Barcelona, where he stands opposed to the separatist movements.         

In Greece, the electorate will also be voting in regional and municipal elections on Sunday along with those for the European Parliament – which Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has suggested will be a vote confidence in his government, the result of which could lead to early national elections.

In Germany, Sunday’s European elections will be accompanied by a regional election in the state of Bremen, a stronghold for the social-democrat SDP party.

The political groups in the new parliament

The outgoing European Parliament is composed of eight political groups. Its outgoing president, the Italian Antonio Tajani (a member of Silvio Berluscoini’s rightwing Forza Italia party) is from the European People’s Party (EPP) the largest of the parliament’s cross-national political groups (with 216 seats). The EPP is an alliance of conservatives which also includes the political parties of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk (the European Council, which brings together heads of state and government of EU member countries, sets out the EU’s overall political direction and priorities). In France, the party allied to the EPP is the conservative Les Républicains (the former UMP).

A political group in the parliament can only be created if it has at least 25 MEPs who, altogether, must have been elected in at least seven different member states. Following the elections in 2014, French far-right Front National (now renamed Rassemblement National) party leader Marine Le Pen struggled over the first year to form a group because of the requirement it must be composed of MEPs from at least seven nations.

As of May 27th, negotiations will begin to form the groups which will allow the organisation of political life in the parliament over its coming five-year term. Ahead of results after final voting on Sunday, there are many imponderables. These include the makeup of the EPP (will it, for example, include the hardright nationalist Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?), the capacity of Europe’s diverse far-right parties to form one, united group (they were spread across three groups in the outgoing parliament), the strategies of the British MEPs (who face an early departure from the assembly), and the alliances that may be forged among Green parties.

The composition of the groups must be finalised by June 24th, ahead of the parliament’s inaugural session on July 2nd in Strasbourg. In theory, the elections of the president of the new parliament and of its 14 vice-presidents will begin immediately. But if, as some predict, there will be a significant fragmentation of the political groups, making it difficult to form a majority from among them, the process could take several weeks 

Who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president?

Beginning in 2014, each pan-European political group designated a lead candidate, a so-called Spitzenkandidat,  for the post of Commission president. Under the system, it is in theory the group that emerges from the parliamentary elections this month with a majority which will see its candidate appointed to head the Commission. That was the case in 2014 with Jean-Claude Juncker, who was the PPE candidate.

This year, six European Parliament groups have again adopted the same strategy, and if the 2014 scenario were to be repeated it would place the PPE candidate Manfred Weber, from Germany’s Christian Social Union party, in poll position to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker.

But things are not quite so simple. Firstly, because there is a strong chance that, even if it again emerges as the majority group, the PPE will lose a large number of seats compared to the outgoing parliament. Secondly, the heads of state and government also have a say in the matter and, under the strict terms of European treaties, are supposed to put forward their chosen candidate for approval before parliament.

French President Emmanuel Macron has made clear his opposition to the Spitzenkandidat strategy. His eclectic centrist party LREM, which opinion surveys suggest is in second place behind the far-right Rassemblement National party ahead of the vote in France, has no prospect of leading a new political group in the European Parliament, leaving Macron relatively isolated. With the liberal parties, to which the LREM would normally gravitate, having little chance of becoming the majority group, the French president must employ a strategy of forming alliances if he is to weigh in the appointment of the Commission’s next president.

It is therefore possible that at the Council meetings due on June 20th and 21st other names will be put forward in an effort to find a compromise between the different political families. That of the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is tipped for proposition and has the support of many on the French side, but his appointment could hardly be regarded as a symbol of political renewal. Nor, of course, would he fit in with ambitions for greater gender parity in the EU top jobs.     

Another option might be EU Commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, from the Danish Social Liberal Party, a choice that could meet with Macron’s approval, but at this stage she does not have the support of the Danish government. Also, her country is not part of the eurozone.

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission and member of the Dutch social-democrat Labour Party is also a possible candidate, his chances increased by the recent successes of the socialists in Spain and Portugal.

The choice of European Commission president is one of several new appointments to be made this year. Leaders of the EU member states will meet at the end of June to discuss that and at least three other key posts; that of the head of the European Council, in replacement of Donald Tusk, the appointment of the new president of the European Parliament, and the designation of the EU’s new foreign affairs representative in replacement of Federica Mogherini, from the Italian socialist Democratic Party.

Finally, there will be parallel negotiations to choose a new head of the European Central Bank, the ECB, to replace Italian economist Mario Draghi who is to step down on October 31st.  

Meanwhile, if the Council designates a Commission president who is not among the so-called Spitzenkandidaten, it would run the risk of an early battle with the European Parliament. To do so would be a risky venture, especially so if the far-right and hardline nationalists see an increase their numbers in parliament with this month’s elections.



  • The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Graham Tearse



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