European parliamentary elections will take place on 23-26 May 2019. They are the biggest electoral contest in Europe. Currently, 751 members of the European Parliament represent more than 512 million people from the 28 member states.

Held every five years since 1979, European elections have, up until now, been conducted on a predominantly national basis. In the past, they have been low-turnout and low-stakes affairs. For the following reasons, this year’s European parliamentary elections may be different:

  • They will be seen as a significant test of the support for populist parties across Europe. For the first time, the campaign is taking on a transnational, pan-European tone – Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League, has described the European elections as an opportunity to create an “international alliance of populists”.
  • The share of votes going to populist, Eurosceptic parties should remain well below 50%. Nonetheless, a strong vote for the populists could complicate decision-making in the parliament at a time when momentum for eurozone institutional reform is already flagging.
  • There is a material risk that the elections are a catalyst for political change and/or instability in certain eurozone member states.

What are the functions of the European Parliament?

Source: BNP Paribas Markets 360, October 2018

European Parliament elections: the process

The distribution of seats across the European Union member states is determined by population, with Germany allocated the largest number of seats followed by France and Italy. In each member state, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected in national elections, in which votes are cast for national parties. Seats are then allocated on the basis of proportional representation, respecting the predetermined country allocation.

Once elected, the different national parties form groups or coalitions with like-minded parties from other member states. Currently, there are eight distinct groups in the European Parliament and one group of independents.

On the basis of the scheduled withdrawal of the UK from the EU, the European Parliament voted in February 2018 to decrease the number of MEPs from 751 to 705 after the UK’s exit.

Currently, the largest group in parliament is that formed by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which holds 29% of the seats, and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which holds 25% of the seats. Since 1979, this coalition has held the majority of seats.

Exhibit 1: Since 1979, a grand coalition has held power in the European parliament

Sources: European Parliament, BNP Paribas Markets 360, October 2018

An end to the grand coalition?

The established political alignment in the European Parliament may be challenged. Traditionally, the parliament has not been based on a ‘majority versus opposition’ model, but on a coalition made up of the EPP and the S&D.  It currently holds 54% of the assembly’s seats.

If the grand coalition model were to end in May, the composition of the European parliament could become more complex, possibly requiring an alliance between four parties to pass laws.

In addition to determining the make-up of the parliament, which is one of the EU’s two “co-legislators” along with the EU council of ministers, the results of this May’s elections may also play a role in determining the division of the EU’s top jobs. That will be the subject of another article…

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