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EUROPE

European elections: A beginner’s guide to the vote

Who gets a vote, what are they voting for and why does it matter? Political scientist Tatiana Coutto explains everything you need to know about the EU elections.

European elections: A beginner's guide to the vote
The European parliament at work. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

The European Parliament elections are not unlike cricket. Both can last for quite a few days and it can be pretty hard to understand the rules. This year’s European elections take place between May 23rd and 26th and different countries vote on different days.

It’s not surprising that few people bother to vote in these elections, either because they find the whole process too complicated or because they find it boring (some people feel the same about cricket).

READ ALSO: Falling turnout at European elections: the reasons

But this year’s vote is shaping up to be more interesting than most. The populist surge across Europe is being felt in Brussels, as eurosceptic parties aim to cause trouble from inside. The UK’s failure to secure a Brexit deal has left it in the bizarre position of needing to stand candidates despite its planned departure from the bloc.

Parties across the political spectrum have launched initiatives to encourage 400 million EU citizens to register and vote. The European Parliament (EP) launched the “This time I’m voting” campaign with the same objective, and an app with information about registration and voting in all member states.

Here’s how the vote will work and why these elections are actually very important.


Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

The basics

EU citizens will be voting to fill 751 seats in the European Parliament. Although, if the UK pulls out at the last minute in the unlikely event of agreeing a Brexit deal, they will be voting to fill 705 seats.

EU citizens vote for the candidates or parties of their country of origin or residence, provided that they are registered. Those living overseas can use their country’s embassies, consulates or schools to vote for a candidate running in their home country. The minimum age is 18 except in Austria and Malta (where it’s 16) and Greece (where it’s 17). Voting is compulsory in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg – although this rule is not always enforced.

READ ALSO: European elections: How UK vote could help predict outcome of a second Brexit referendum

Each member state is allocated a certain number of seats in the European Parliament, according to the size of its population (economic indicators or size of the territory don’t matter in this case). France, for example, currently has 74 seats, Malta and Luxembourg have six MEPs each and the UK has 73.

Voting processes vary significantly from one country to another, but they all include some element of proportional representation. For example, Ireland has three constituencies (Dublin, Midlands-North-West and South) and voters rank the candidates, as many or as few as they wish, in order of choice.


Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP

France used to divide its candidates into eight constituencies but these have now been abolished. This year, voters will instead choose from a single electoral list – meaning they vote for a party and not for individual candidates. Bulgaria also has a single constituency, but voters can indicate their candidate preferences within the party list they choose. Estonian citizens and permanent residents can vote online.

How is the parliament organised after the vote?

Once elected, MEPs are organised by transnational groups that reflect their political affiliation. The current parliament has eight groups. These include the centre-left Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), which brings together the French National Rally, the Italian League and other far-right parties.


Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally and Matteo Salvini of Italy's League. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The largest group is the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which has 216 MEPS. This includes Angela Merkel’s CDU and Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ (although he has been suspended by the group until further notice). There are also 21 MEPs who do not belong to any group.

The party with the largest number of seats gets to appoint the president of the European Commission, a position currently held by former Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg. The president is akin to a conductor: he or she sets the tempo and makes sure the orchestra plays in a harmonious way but they cannot choose the repertoire alone. In the European Parliament, no party family has the majority of the seats so they have to reach out to other groups, working together to to approve legislation.

READ ALSO: Juncker vows to fight 'fake news' before European elections


Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

Why is there a European parliament?

The idea that there should be a parliamentary assembly to represent the citizens of the member states dates back to 1952, when the Coal and Steel Community (the precursor of the European Community) was established. At that time, the 142 members were national parliamentarians appointed by their respective governments. They played only a marginal role, while the “real” decisions were made by the member states.

The first direct elections to the parliament took place in 1979 and the body has, over time, developed political muscle. Together with the European Council (which represents the member states), the parliament is now responsible for preparing and adopting the EU budget – which amounts to €165.8 billion in 2019.

The parliament legislates on all kinds of important issues, from food standards to LGBT rights. In March, for example, 560 of the 751 MEPs voted in a new law banning single-use plastic items such as plates and cutlery by 2021.

Why is there such a low turnout?

Despite the important role the parliament plays, voter turnout has dropped from 62 percent in 1979 to 43 percent in 2014. In some countries, participation is incredibly low. Only 13 percent of Slovakian voters went to the polls in the last elections.

In some of the newer member states, the perception that voting doesn’t make any difference, together with mistrust in politicians and in politics in general, keeps people from participating.

Europe’s media also doesn’t cover the parliament’s work much, so people don’t pay attention to it. It rarely goes viral, and when it does, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.


Photo: Patrick Herzog/AFP

This all combines to give the impression that the parliament is not an organisation to be taken seriously. But the European Parliament is, in many ways, the human face of the European Union. It is made up of people from different countries, who all bring different stories and experiences – people like the Polish MEP Marek Plura, an advocate for policies that promote a more inclusive society for people with disabilities (he suffers himself from a degenerative illness).

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement when it comes to gender balance and ethnic diversity in the parliament. Women make up just 37 percent of the 751 MEPs, and less than 20 MEPs identify themselves as non-white (there are no official statistics on this because several states are against collecting data on ethnicity).

Why should people vote?

Despite the low levels of participation in European elections, it’s worth noting that 50 percent of Europeans say they trust the institution, while only 34 percent feel the same about national governing bodies.

On average, 68 percent of European citizens believe their country has benefited from EU membership. People like the idea of easily travelling to another country and are attached to the Euro (France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini changed their discourse about the single currency after they were confronted with that evidence). And in Romania, Spain and Poland, EU membership is often regarded as a sort of antidote to the excesses of national governments.

READ ALSO: Five reasons why the European elections really do matter


Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

The European parliament is also often to be found leading the charge on issues that are truly important to European citizens such as environmental protection, transparency and data protection.

Recent protests in France and in other countries have shown that EU institutions have not properly addressed some of their citizens’ most crucial concerns. Many of these concerns have less to do with national issues such as immigration and political parties and more to do with a broader hope for a brighter, fairer and happier future. As a transnational body, the European Parliament has a unique role to play in addressing these big issues, and communicating them to the public.

Tatiana Coutto, Teaching Fellow, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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IMMIGRATION

How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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