The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

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Nominations for election to the European Parliament closed on Thursday. We now know which parties will be contesting the elections (if they happen), and who those parties have selected to stand for them in each region of the UK. The Unit’s Alan Renwick offers a brief guide to how the elections will work and what we can expect to learn from them.

With little sign of progress in the Brexit talks between the government and the Labour Party, UK participation in next month’s European Parliament elections looks increasingly likely. The parties have nominated their candidates and begun to launch their campaigns. Much is being said about how the electoral system will shape the outcome, but not all of it is accurate. This post provides a quick guide to the key points and reaches two main conclusions. First, the system will disadvantage small parties: in particular, the anti-Brexit parties will be punished for their disunity. Second, anyone wanting to read the results as a proxy second Brexit referendum will need to do so with great care.

1. The system is proportional…

The UK uses a system of proportional representation (PR) for European Parliament elections. To be precise, it uses two different systems. England, Scotland, and Wales use a list-based form of PR, which was introduced to replace the old First Past the Post system in 1999. This is based on 11 regions, each electing between three and ten MEPs. Each party puts up a list of candidates and voters choose one party’s list. The seats are allocated to the parties in each region in proportion to the votes that they have won.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, has used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of PR ever since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Each party again puts up a slate of candidates. But voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, and these votes are counted and transferred according to the preferences expressed until the three seats available have been filled.

Proportional systems make it easier than under First Past the Post for small parties to secure seats. Last time around, for example, the Green Party won three seats with 7.87% of the vote, whereas in 1989, under First Past the Post, it famously captured 14.5% of the vote but no seats at all.

2. …but not all that proportional

‘Proportional’ systems vary in just how proportional they are. In fact, neither of the systems used in the UK is especially so, for two reasons. First, the number of seats available in each region constrains how far it is possible to allocate seats proportionally. In the North East of England, for example, where there are only three seats, it is clearly impossible for any more than three parties to win representation. Even the largest region – the South East, with ten seats – is quite small in seat terms, making it impossible to reflect the pattern of votes perfectly in the allocation of seats. Continue reading

New president, new ‘Constitution’?

Juncker’s election might mark a new phase of European construction. But the Union’s institutional, political and constitutional foundations need renovation, writes Yves Bertoncini.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s election to the post of president of the Commission marks a new stage in the historic process of rebalancing the powers of member states and the European Parliament. Yet it has been accompanied by a fair number of political, institutional and thus also ‘constitutional’ ambiguities which it would be useful to dispel over the coming weeks, and also with a view to the elections in 2019.

1. An election which sets a welcome political precedent, but which is not yet an institutional ‘custom’

Juncker’s election is the result of a gradual evolution set in motion by the Treaty of Maastricht, which countenanced the principle of a compulsory vote of approval for the Commission in the European Parliament. The Treaty of Amsterdam subsequently separated the vote of approval for the Commission president from the vote for his team. It was on that basis that Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa and our European Steering Committee proposed, as long ago as 1998, a new democratic adjustment consisting in pegging the appointment of the Commission president to the result of the European elections by mobilising the European political parties in that sense and, if possible, amending the treaties to reflect that fact.

The Convention on the future of Europe debated this amendment, but its members refused to peg the Commission president to parliament quite so solidly, although they did suggest that the European Council should ‘take the European elections into account’ when appointing the president. Revived in the Treaty of Lisbon, this formula for a ‘constitutional treaty’ was sufficiently ambiguous to fuel conflicting interpretations, borne out by the radical opposition evinced by the British authorities; but at the same time it was sufficiently open-ended to allow the main European political parties to use it to create a balance of forces from which the assembly in Strasbourg has recently emerged the winner.

Continue reading