With the European Parliamentary elections fast approaching, I have been asked to devote a blog to giving a bit of background to the elections in an effort to explain why they are important. For those who are more visually inclined, this video might be worth watching. Otherwise, read on!

Make-up of the European Parliament

The European Parliament currently has 766 Members, or MEPs, but with the upcoming elections this will be reduced to 751. From a Dutch perspective, this has always seen like a very large number compared to the 150 MPs in the Tweede Kamer. However, compared to the UK, which has 650 MPs in the House of Commons, it doesn’t seem like that much to govern a territory with about ten times more citizens than the United Kingdom. The seats are allocated to countries on the basis of ‘degressive proportionality’. In laymans terms, this means that larger countries get more seats, but that the number of seats doesn’t go up as fast as the population of the country. For instance, Romania has 33 MEPS, a third of Germany’s 96. Yet Romania’s population is only a quarter of that of Germany. This way, the distribution of seats ensures on the one hand that larger countries have more say, but on the other hand that they cannot dominate smaller countries.

However, MEPs are not grouped together by country. Instead, national political parties affiliate themselves with European political groups. These groups mirror the national political divisions to some extent, but not entirely. The largest current group is the European People’s Party, of which the Dutch CDA is a member (The British Conservative Party used to be part of this group, until it migrated to the European Conservatives and Reformists, which also has the Dutch ChristenUnie). Sometimes, parties that are different on a national level are part of the same European political group. The Dutch VVD and D66 are in the same group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), whereas in the UK, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are all part of the Greens-European Free Alliance. The idea is that voting happens along political groups, not nationality or national political party.

Why these elections are different

One of the defining features of the European elections is that they have to be proportional, regardless of the electoral system in use in the country. This is not particularly special in the Netherlands, but in the UK, it makes the European election on of the few proportional elections. (The UK uses a ‘first-past-the-post‘ system for most of its elections.) As a result, the European elections are more interesting for ‘non-establishment’ parties that would otherwise struggle to get elected, such as the Greens or UKIP. It also means there is far less need to vote strategically, as votes for non-establishment parties are not ‘lost’ as they might be otherwise.

So what does the Parliament do?

Since its inception, the power of the European Parliament has gradually been expanded. It used to have only an advisory role, but since 1992 it has co-decision powers with the Council of the European Union. I wrote a bit more about the ordinary legislative procedure in a previous post, and the EP itself has quite a good explanation on its website. In a nutshell though, most legislation of the EU can only be passed with the consent of Parliament. One of the Parliament’s most famous moves was its rejection of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). It did this in defiance of the wishes of most of the EU’s national governments, which had already signed the agreement, after it turned out to be massively unpopular with the European citizenry. Other examples include capping the roaming charges for use of mobile data abroad and reforming the EU’s fisheries policies.

A second important power of the EP is that it needs to approve the EU budget, together with the Council. Parliament can propose amendments to the budget and before it is passed, any differences with the Council have to be ironed out. What I should point out here though, is that the draft budget is made by the national ministers of all member states. It is thus not the case that the budget is ‘imposed’ on member states by the European Commission! Instead, the vast majority of it is determined by representatives of the current national governments (who in my opinion ought to take a bit more responsibility for it). Again, the EP’s website has a good graphic explaining the budget procedure.

Finally the EP has to approve the European Commission, and also has the power to ultimately dismiss it. The European Commission itself is not democratically elected (commissioners are recommended by member states), so Parliament’s oversight is the only way in which European citizens have direct control over the commission.

So why should you go and vote?

The European Parliament is the only way for European citizens to directly influence European policy and legislation. Now that the EP has changed from a mostly advisory body to an institution with real power, not voting is effectively throwing away any opportunity to have a say about where the EU is heading. Recently, Parliament has also shown it is willing to act directly for the benefit of the European citizenry, even if this is against the desires of the ‘elite’ Commission and the Council of national ministers.

European legislation now impacts many aspects of our lives, from environmental protection to tobacco labeling and international trade. If you feel strongly about some of the issues that are decided at the European level (and it seems everybody is, these days), you should definitely go out and vote.

This blog first appeared on 52 Acts and is in English because Frank couldn’t be bothered to translate it. It is a wonderfully sunny afternoon today, after all, and that doesn’t happen too often in the UK.

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