What are the European elections and how do they work?

Michael Savage and Jennifer Rankin


What are the European elections?
The European elections are the second-largest democratic contest in the world, second only to the Indian elections. Voters in 28 countries will elect 751 members of the European parliament for a five-year term that starts on 2 July. If Brexit goes ahead, British MEPs will quit; some of the UK’s 73 seats will be redistributed to other states, but the parliament will be reduced to 705 members.

When does voting happen?
The Netherlands and the UK vote first, on Thursday 23 May. A handful of countries go to the polls on Friday and Saturday, but most member states (21 of them) run the election on Sunday. Results cannot be announced before the last polling station closes at 11pm Central European Time (CET) in Italy. Officials at the European parliament expect to announce the first projection of results, based on exit polls and counted votes, as soon as 11.15pm CET.

So how does the voting work?
Just to add a bit more confusion to proceedings, different EU countries use different voting systems. European rules only state that a form of proportional representation has to be used. England, Wales and Scotland use the so-called D’Hondt system to allocate their 70 MEPs. Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote system to elect its three MEPs, where candidates are ranked by voters in order of preference.

What is the D’Hondt system?
Voters can back one candidate or party in their region. Different regions have different numbers of MEPs, based on their populations. For example, while the north-east of England has three, the south-east of England has 18. London has its own allocation. Under the D’Hondt system, seats are meant to be allocated to reflect the proportion of the overall vote a party secured. However, because the vote is broken down regionally, it means there is effectively a minimum share of the vote that a party has to achieve to ensure it gains at least one MEP.

So can pro-Remain supporters vote tactically?
The Brexit party has become the clear favourite of voters who are passionate Brexiters. However, those who backed Remain are dividing between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Change UK and the nationalist parties. This has led to questions about whether the parties should have formed some kind of alliance, or whether voters should tactically opt for one party.

There are conflicting views here. While some Remain supporters have set up websites to advise people on voting tactically, other analysts have warned such attempts could even end up costing Remain parties seats in some regions.

How will the new European parliament work?
On being elected, most MEPs join groups that reflect their political outlook. In the outgoing parliament, there are eight political groups, spanning Marine Le Pen’s far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom, to the radical left alliance of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. The largest bloc is the centre-right European People’s party, the political family of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker. The second largest is the Socialists and Democrats, home to Spain’s newly elected prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and Jeremy Corbyn. Brexit party MEPs are members of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, a Eurosceptic bloc led by Nigel Farage. British Conservatives sit in the group Conservatives and Reformists in Europe.