Why we should care about this week’s European elections


Parties skeptical of European integration and right-wing populist politicians are likely to gain ground, while centre-left parties and the Greens will lose votes and seats. (Pexels photo)

This week's European Parliament (EP) elections are likely to change the political direction of the European Union's main legislative and budgetary body, the EU's only directly elected institution.

Parties skeptical of European integration and right-wing populist politicians are likely to gain ground, while centre-left parties and the Greens are expected to lose votes and seats.

The outcome will have major implications for EU policies on the environment and climate change, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, migration, trade agreements – including one with Canada – and other policy areas.

Since the first direct elections in 1979 – before that, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were also representatives in their own national parliaments – elections to the European Parliament have taken place every five years and are often characterised by volatility.

In the 2019 European elections in the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats increased their vote share from one seat to 16 (putting them second after the Brexit Party with 24 seats), Labour fell from 20 to 10 seats and the ruling Conservatives were left with just four of their previous 19 seats.

This volatility reflects the fact that voters often use European elections to punish or reward national parties and that voter turnout tends to be lower than in national elections. With fewer voters, a small fluctuation in the number of votes can mean a large fluctuation in the number of seats in the European Parliament.

When the United Kingdom left the EU in January 2020, some of its seats in the EP were distributed among the remaining EU member states and the loss of British members led to new coalitions in all policy areas.

Challenges in voter turnout

In 2019, voter turnout in the European elections was below 51 percent, which is still an improvement on the turnout of only around 43 percent in the 2014 and 2009 elections.

According to the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, all citizens of the EU member states have the right to vote and stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament and in local elections in their country of residence.

Over the years, these political rights have become more important as more and more Europeans make use of them. However, the participation rate among EU citizens living outside their home country remains relatively low.

The elections will take place on different dates in different countries, from June 6 to June 9. They are likely to continue the trend of traditional centre-right and centre-left groups losing ground. To form a recognised group, at least 23 MEPs from at least seven countries are needed, and different national parties often change their group or abandon their own group.

The far-right Identity and Democracy group – in which Marine Le Pen's French Rassemblement National party plays a leading role – recently expelled the Alternative for Germany delegation after its leader said that members of the Nazi SS were “not all criminals”.

Some far-right parties have also been accused of having links to China and Russia. Belgian and French police recently raided the offices of the European Parliament on suspicion that MEPs had been approached and offered money to spread Russian propaganda. The scandal, nicknamed “Russiagate,” has heightened concerns about a lack of transparency in party fundraising and led to an investigation that found that a quarter of private money goes to extremist and populist parties.

What does the European Parliament do?

The EP is often seen as weaker than the European Council, which represents the member states, or the European Commission, which together with the Council forms the EU's executive.

The EP approves or rejects the candidates for Commission President and each of the 26 other Commissioners – one from each EU member state, nominated by each government. In this respect, the Commission is comparable to a government cabinet, with each Commissioner responsible for a policy area.

The EP also approves the EU budget, which provides funding for cohesion measures between Member States, agriculture, the environment and other priorities.

For Canadians, the biggest impacts of the EP elections may not be immediately obvious.

The formal relationship between Canada and the EU is the oldest that the EU has with any industrialised country, dating back to 1959, when the EU was still called the European Economic Community.

Canada and the EU have signed a strategic partnership agreement that provides for regular summit meetings between the Canadian Prime Minister and the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission.

The last event took place in November 2023 in St. John's, Netherlands.

What impact the elections could have on Canada

The EP President does not attend the Canada-EU summits, despite the fact that the EU is Canada's second largest trading partner and the EP plays an important role in evaluating and approving all EU trade and investment agreements before they can enter into force.

The EP Delegation for relations with Canada is described by the Head of that Delegation as “one of the oldest in the European Parliament, reflecting the importance of the partnership and close cooperation between the EU and Canada”.

The elections could dramatically change the composition of the delegation, which could have implications for Canadian trade agreements. More broadly, the elections will help determine the EU's priorities in the areas of environment and climate, agriculture, defence, migration, justice, technology and many other policy areas important to Canada.The conversationThe conversation

Willem Maas, Jean Monnet Chair and Professor of Political Science, Socio-Legal Studies and Public and International Affairs, York University, Canada

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