2009 election preview: European Parliament


As well as the world’s largest electorate in India, the world’s second largest electorate goes to the polls in June, when all 27 European Union member states will elect over 700 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in the seventh European Parliament election. Elections have been held for the European Parliament every five years since 1979, which was the world’s first election to cross national boundaries. The European Parliament remains the world’s only directly elected supernational body.

With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria two years ago, the EU has over 515 million citizens. As of the 2004 election, 342 million voters were eligible to vote, with a further 26 million in Romania and Bulgaria eligible to vote at national elections in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

The 2004 election saw 154.3 million voters go to the polls. In comparison, 131.2 million votes were cast in the recent US presidential election. Overall, turnout levels across the EU were at 45.6%, although these levels varied wildly amongst the member states. 7 states saw a majority of voters come to the polls, while 18 had turnout levels below 50%, varying from 16% turnout in Slovakia to 90% in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Voting will take place over four days, 4-7 June 2009, in accordance with each member state’s traditional election day. It is also common for member states to hold local or regional elections simultaneously. All English county councils will go to election on 4 June 2009.

All MEPs are elected using varied forms of proportional representation, according to rules set by national legislatures. 21 member states elect their entire delegation as a single electorate. Belgium divides their MEPs proportionally between the Dutch-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking populations. France, the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Italy divide their MEPs amongst a handful of regional electorates. For example, England is divided into nine regional electorates, while MEPs are also elected to represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Poland elects its MEPs to represent thirteen electorates.

The European Parliament is fascinating due to the transnational nature of the Parliament and its elections, not found anywhere else in global politics. However, the fact remains that the European Parliament remains very weak for a Parliament, and doesn’t fill the role of federal parliaments in federations like Australia or the US, with most power remaining in the hands of national governments.

Even within the EU’s transnational political system, the European Parliament is effectively the lower house, and the weaker house, in a bicameral legislature, with the Council (made up of a representative of each member state’s government) effectively the upper house. After years of evolution in the Parliament’s role, most legislation must now pass through the Parliament, which also is gaining greater influence over the executive branch of the EU (the European Commission), although the Commission remains largely decided by the Council. The Parliament has more power in practice than in theory, due to its unique democratic legitimacy.

The Treaty of Lisbon would also expand the role of the Parliament, as well as changing the number of seats allocated to each member state. If the Treaty is adopted prior to the 2009 election, there will be 751 seats, whereas 736 MEPs will be elected if Lisbon is not ratified. 25 of 27 EU states have ratified the Treaty of Lisbon, but the defeat of the Treaty at a referendum in Ireland makes it likely that the treaty will not be ratified in the next five months.

The European Parliament electoral process has resulted in a new party system, built on top of the existing party systems in each member state. Most MEPs are members of a national political party, and these parties group together with other parties of similar ideologies to form groups in the European Parliament, which are gradually coalescing into Europe-wide parties. The current Parliament includes MEPs in ten parties, which organise as seven groups. There are also 32 Non-Inscrits, those who do not belong to any group. These parties are:

  • European People’s Party-European Democrats (Blue) – The largest group, with 288 MEPs, the EPP-ED fills the role of the centre-right major party. The EPP is the larger group, and includes Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, Angela Merkel’s CDU and CSU, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Irish opposition party Fine Gael. The European Democrats were once a large separate group, but now are largely dominated by the British Conservative Party, which stands out from its French and German counterparts by its more Eurosceptic position.
  • Party of European Socialists (Red) – The PES is the centre-left major party, and includes most centre-left major parties in Europe, such as Labour in the UK and Ireland, France’s Socialist Party and Germany’s Social Democratic Party. The PES has 215 MEPs.
  • Alliance and Liberals and Democrats for Europe (Yellow) – This alliance is made up of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, made up of centrist liberal parties, including the UK Liberal Democrats, and the European Democratic Party, a centrist pro-European party, led by Francois Bayrou, of the French UDF. The ALDE has 101 MEPs.
  • Union for Europe of the Nations (Light Blue) – The UEN is made up of largely conservative parties in a handful of European countries. It is dominated by right-wing Italian parties and a number of conservative Polish parties. It also includes the Irish governing party Fianna Fail, which is considered out of step with most of the UEN parties. The largest UEN parties in the European Parliament is the Italian post-fascist National Alliance and the Polish Law and Justice party, led by the Kaczyński twins.
  • European Greens-European Free Alliance (Green) – The European Greens include 33 MEPs from 13 Green parties in eleven countries, and includes Green parties in almost every EU member state. The European Greens were the first party to move away from a loose alliance to a Pan-European party running on a continent-wide platform. The EFA is made up of those regionalist parties on the left-wing side of the spectrum. Including the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Basque Eusko Alkartasuna. The EFA only holds six seats, three of those in the UK, but includes many parties without European Parliament representation. The EG-EFA holds 42 seats.
  • European United Left-Nordic Green Left (Dark Red) – The EUL-NGL consists of the Party of the European Left, largely far-left and communist parties in mainland Europe, and the Nordic Green Left, which is made up of similar parties in Scandinavia. The EUL-NGL has 41 MEPs.
  • Independence/Democracy (Orange) – ID is made up of Eurosceptic parties, formed shortly after a strong performance at the 2004 election. It includes the UK Independence Party amongst others. It only holds 24 seats, after large parties in Poland and Italy left during the last Parliamentary term.

The last election in 2004 produced yet another indecisive result. In practice, the European Parliament is led by a grand coalition of the EPP and PES, and no election has produced a solid victory for either side.

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  1. The European elections are always pretty exciting, except for when you’re trying to watch it on television – then it’s frustrating. Each country only focuses on its own results (fair enough I suppose). When I lived in the Netherlands I had the public networks of Germany, France, Belgium and the UK, so I tried some channel-surfing before giving up and going online.

    Since I still have a Dutch passport, I can vote (probably electronically) in national and European elections. No prizes for guessing where my vote’s going, but I think all the Dutch Greens can do at this stage is hope to hold their two seats. I’ll be interested to see whether there’ll be any Green breakthroughs in Eastern Europe.

  2. The European political parties fascinate me; they reflect, to me, the ideal of what a party system should look like. Broad centre-left and centre-right parties, who would provide the Prime Minister in a parliamentary system; a centrist liberal party; left-wing and right-wing parties to act as ‘ginger groups’ to the majors, and to provide ideological inspiration; and a bunch of fascists round the sides to act as jesters.

  3. So I don’t know where to put this comment, but since I think this is pretty exciting, and I think the readers of this blog will think so as well, I decided to put it in the most relevant topic.

    The government of Iceland has resigned and the PM has asked the President to call a snap election. Talks are currently underway regarding the election date but the most likely appears to be some time in early May. The catalyst for the resignation of the government was the financial crisis, which has hit Iceland very hard and shredded their economy, predicted to shrink by up to 10% this year.

    Now you’d expect the opposition party to capitalise on the current woes and strong anti-government sentiments, which have led to violent protests, but the irony is that Iceland’s two major political parties are in a grand coalition together, after the centre-right Independence Party’s (who achieved a plurality of votes) traditional partner, the Progressive Party got hammered. Due to the PR system, a coalition was inevitable and the conservatives chose to side with the main left bloc, the Social Democratic Alliance, rather then the radical Left-Green Movement.

    The Left-Green Movement, as the third largest bloc in parliament, is the de facto opposition and has been gaining popularity at the expense of the major parties and by feeding on strong anti-market sentiments in Iceland.

    A poll out last weekend put the Independence Party at 22%, down from 36.6% at the last election. The SDA were at 19%, down from 26.8% and the Left-Green Movement polled an incredible 32.6% up from 14% at the last election, making it potentially the biggest party in parliament.

    The Left-Green’s were created when Iceland’s left-wing political parties got together in the later 90’s to create the SDA, which was viewed by some leftists as too conservative.

    It’s policy platform is a mixture of traditional European socialism and Green values like environmentalism, grass roots democracy, non-violence and social justice.

    So to explain my excitement – In a few months we may see the first environmentalist party forming government as a majority coalition partner anywhere in the world.

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