This coming week Europeans will be able to vote on their representatives for the European Parliament – the Dutch vote is on Thursday the 22nd of May. This is the only body of the EU that Europeans can actually vote for, so this is the EU’s big chance to show that it is a democratic institution. The well-known problem with these elections is the low voter turnout; in 2009 only 43% of EU citizens bothered to vote. So how does this parliament work? Who’s in it? And what’s different about this year’s elections?
Next Thursday voters will recognise all the parties on the ballot as mostly the same parties that are in their own national parliaments. So in the Netherlands this includes the big parties like the VVD (liberals) and CDA (Christian Democrats). However, the European elections use a proportional representation system, meaning small parties have a better chance of getting in. If a party gets 10% of the Dutch vote they get 10% of the Dutch seats.
Once the elections have taken place in each country, the winners can go to the European Parliament. Each EU member state is given a certain number of the 751 seats based on their population. Germany has the most at 99, the Netherlands has 25, and Malta has 5. Of course if each national party worked by itself, the Parliament would be complete chaos. That’s why parties with similar ideologies will work together to form a bigger European Party.
The biggest party is the centre-right European People’s Party – including Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Dutch CDU. Their main opponent is the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, which includes most of the Social Democrat and Labour parties in Europe. The remainder of the parliament is filled with neoliberals, communists and everyone in between.
This election however, a different party is looking like making a big impact – the Eurosceptics. These are the parties that want the EU to be downsized, even to the point of nonexistence. In Southern Europe many of their supporters are people who see the EU as an undemocratic organisation imposing austerity, and in Northern Europe their supporters are voters afraid of immigration and who see the EU as taking their money to give to the southerners. The European Union is worried that if they get too much support they will be able to form a big enough European Party to bring the Parliament’s work to a halt.
However, this cooperation might not be as likely as it seems. The Eurosceptic parties are also the far-right parties, and they are already squabbling over who will be associated with who. The UK Independence Party is trying to stay away from the Dutch PVV and the French Front National, to avoid being labelled as racists. The PVV and the FN are moving economically to the left to steal voters from the far-left, which makes it harder for them to cooperate with Eurosceptic conservatives. And the German Eurosceptic party AfD is steering clear of the whole mess, wanting to be seen as a legitimate political option. If all these parties managed to cooperate they could form a threat to the workings of the EU – but if they can’t, they’ll remain extremist voices on the sidelines.
Everyone can agree that the European Parliament isn’t the most exciting of organisations, and that these aren’t the most thrilling elections. However, it’s the one chance we get to have a say in the running of the organisation that has so much influence on our own countries. And this year there is one more pressing reason to vote – to stop the far-right. If taking seats away from the PVV isn’t a good enough reason to vote, then I’m not sure what is.