Elections to the European Parliament
European elections have been held every five years since 1979. They operate over a
huge area of the continent. However, the campaigns for them are largely national ones,
decided on national rather than European issues. The role of transnational political
parties remains limited and media interest is low. The outcome provides inconclusive
evidence of Europe-wide trends, for losses for one party in one country are often
compensated for by gains for a similar party in another.
In this chapter, we examine the way in which elections are conducted in member
states, with particular emphasis on the choice of electoral system. We note problems of
turnout and the difficulty of engaging the electorates of many countries. Finally, we
examine the role of referendums within the Union.
The European Parliament is the only EU institution to be directly elected by the peoples of the twenty-seven member countries. The first elections were held in 1979, thereafter to occur every five years. They currently operate under Article 1 of the European Elections Act agreed by the Council of Ministers in 1976, although there have been some subsequent modifications.
Euro-elections are the world’s only international elections, involving an electorate of some 265m at the time of the Fourth Enlargement and just under 350m when membership of the EU rose to twenty-five countries. They were designed to provide Parliament with a new legitimacy and to introduce an element of democracy into the Community. It was felt that a supranational elected assembly would act as a more effective brake on the intergovernmental Council of Ministers than an appointed one. In addition, the onset of elections might be expected to contribute to an emerging sense of European identity.
The introduction of direct elections was a step along the integrationist road, for inevitably the elected body – with some success – has consistently sought to acquire further powers since 1979, giving it a greater role in the procedures of the Union. Yet many commentators are sceptical about the extent to which elections have made Parliament a key player on the European scene. They tend to deride the elections as at best not very significant, at worst pointless, for they are of little concern or interest to the majority of inhabitants of the member states. As yet, there is little sign of a distinct European identity and the elections themselves have so far been not one European contest but rather twenty-five different national contests reflecting the differing concerns and priorities of EU countries.
The way in which voters use euro-elections often has little to do with what they feel about matters European. Campaigning has not stimulated a major political debate about Union policies and the future direction that the organisation should take; the engagement of some national politicians is half-hearted; the levels of interest and understanding of voters in several countries are strictly limited; and the media do little to encourage any kind of election fever, preferring as they do