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Introduction to the European Parliament Elections

Elections to the European Parliament (EP) are rapidly approaching, with EU citizens taking to the polls from 4-7 June, the date dependant on the typical voting day in each country. The vast majority of the parliamentarians (MEPs) will be elected on 7 June, when about 80% of the members will be elected.

The EP is a unique institution, more powerful than many legislatures in its ability to set transnational policy, but weak because it cannot set its own agenda. Proposed policy changes are submitted to the EP for debate and approval or refusal, rather than the parliament being able to introduce legislation on its own.

Along with the European Commission (executive branch-type activities) and the European Council (oversight activities by top authorities from each member state), over 700 MEPs of the EP represent the interests of more than 200 political parties in the 27 EU states. Every five years since direct election began in 1979, voters in each member state have elected MEPs from national parties through the local electoral system, most often the “Party List” method. National parties then associate with pan-European parties that create voting blocs in the EP.

Power in the EP, as with most parliamentary systems, is concentrated through coalition-building between various parties in order to generate a bloc large enough to control the passage of legislation. Currently the marriage between the European People’s Party and the European Democrats (EPP-ED) controls the largest bloc of MEPs, with 288 of the 785 members. A center-right group, EPP-ED is made up of mainline conservatives, such as France’s UMP, led by President Sarkozy, Germany’s Christian Democrats, the party of Chancellor Merkel, and the UK’s Conservatives, led by David Cameron. Second largest, the Party of European Socialists (PES) currently holds 217 seats, and represents the center-left wing. The Socialist and Labour parties of most EU states fall into this coalition, such as Labour in the UK or the French Parti Socialiste. Six other coalition parties follow the top two parties, but none with more than 12.7% of the parliamentary votes (a good summary here).

EP elections fall into a different point in the electoral cycle for each of the 27 EU states. National elections take place in Luxembourg at the same time, while national parliamentary balloting in Portugal will be just a few months later, in September. In this time of economic upheaval, most ruling parties will take hits in the EP polling. However, depending on the electoral dynamics since 2004, actual shifts in party numbers may be minimal. For example, while the UMP in France and Labour in the UK are doing poorly in the polls, they will both likely improve on their 2004 results, as their position was even worse at that time.

Another dynamic that shapes the EP elections is the dramatic lack of interest from most Europeans in the election. One British friend of mine, when I asked if he would be voting in the elections, insisted the UK did not have any MEPs, as they had not changed to the Euro from the British Pound. Recent Eurobarometer polling indicates that only 29% of EU citizens could identify the correct year for the next wave of EP elections, ranging from just 14% in the UK to 56% in Luxembourg. Even though more than 70% of respondents felt that “the EU is indispensible in meeting global challenges” and “what brings citizens together is more important than what separates,” just 34% of citizens planned to vote in this round of EP electionsi.

Regardless of the interest from citizens, the election should see an interesting reshuffle of power in the Parliament. In contrast to the US system, however, this reshuffling will not likely be due to a clear voter mandate towards one party or coalition, but instead a number of changes in the way national parties ally with the coalition parties. In Italy, the rapidly changing dynamics in Belusconi’s ruling PdL party will be an important factor in how many MEPs end up in the EPP-ED delegation, and how many instead are part of the more conservative European Nationalist coalition (UEN) or the newly emerging European Conservatives faction. As well, there has been talk of the EPP and ED splitting apart to become separate coalitions. As for smaller national parties, there is sometimes an advantage to being part of a smaller coalition, even if ideological conflicts occur, since it allows your leadership to gain a higher profile in the Parliament than would be possible as part of the EPP-ED or PES. Fianna Fail from Ireland face this dilemma as they consider leaving the smaller UEN (44 seats) for the larger liberal coalition ALDE (100 seats).

As a result, quantitative evaluation and projection of the outcome of the elections is quite a challenge. Rather than only developing a projection model, such as FiveThirtyEight was able to do with the 2008 election cycle in the US, inter-party and intra-party dynamics in 27 countries must be analyzed. With around 250 parties running for seats in the EP, and 8 coalition parties vying for power in the Parliament, complications are many.

Burston-Marsteller (Mark Penn, CEO) was hired by the European Commission to do such a study, however, which is quite interesting in its mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis. The pollsters developed a model by taking vote distributions in previous EP elections (1979 and on) and exploring how well they were related to a number of variables. Similar to Nate’s use of demographic data, the B-M statisticians argue that how well a party fares in the vote distribution can be predicted by taking timely national polling data on each party and adjust them with the following variables:

1. Vote percentages in the previous election
2. Which party is in government
3. Is the party a strong Euroskeptic?
4. Is the EP election being held during a national election year?

The expressed goal of the analysis is make an improvement on the predictive capacity of national EP election polling data that are released in the run-up to the election, which historically has been quite poor. High non-response or “don’t know” rates have plagued this opinion polling, which is typical for elections with low public interest. As well, polling is done in 27 countries, each by a different pollster, with great variability in the methodologies used and house effects included. As a result, while a slight improvement on the polling results may be indicative of trends, the error associated with such an analysis is still very high, illustrating the importance of doing election projections using the FiveThirtyEight method of using opinion polling as just one of several variables, like demographic and regional characteristics.

We will continue to explore this over the next month as the voting approaches. In the meantime, have a look at the B-M study and a few other good resources on the EP elections.

i. In addition, Eurobarometer polling before EP elections has tended to overestimate turnout by 10 or more points, which indicates that turnout could be extremely poor. Data from EB 303, special EP election edition.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at