What is the European Parliament?
The European Parliament (EP) is the only directly elected institution in the European Union. The first direct elections were held in 1979, and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected at five-year intervals. Together with the Council, the EP forms part of the legislative branch of the EU. Whereas the Council represents the interests of national governments, the Parliament is meant to represent European citizens.
The EP is organized similarly to a national parliament with 7 Euro parties with distinct policy platforms. The 785 MEPs sit together with their party group, rather than with their national delegation. The largest group in the EP is currently the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which includes the British Conservatives. The second largest group is the Party of European Socialists (PES), where the British Labour Party belongs.
What does it do?
The main task of the EP, like a national parliament,is to pass legislation and to exercise democratic control over the other EU institutions. With each revision of the EU Treaties, the European Parliament has been granted additional powers. Today it is a genuine co-legislator in the European Union. That is, it is responsible for legislation, together with the Council, in most policy areas.Around 50% of UK legislation with a significant economic impact has its origins in EU legislation, and the EP thus has considerable influence on politics and economics in this country. One example of recent EP activities is legislation forcing mobile phone operators to lower their prices. It has also passed rules aiming to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% within a decade. Unlike national parliaments, the EP does not directly decide the composition of the EU executive, although it has veto over the appointment of the European Commission. It also does not have legislative initiative, as most national EU parliaments do.
What could these elections change?
The Euro elections will decide the composition of the European Parliament, thus the policy direction. Some of the key policy issues that the next Parliament will deal with include designing a framework of financial regulation, deciding on regulation to combat climate change, and coordinating common management of immigration flows to/within the EU.
The European Parliament also plays an important role in deciding the future of European integration, including future enlargement of the Union to include Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey.
If the centre-right European People’s Party remains in power, then the current Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, is also likely to be reappointed for a second term. If, however, the Socialist group wins a larger share of the seats, they may force the Council to appoint another candidate with a more leftist policy agendasuch as fingerprints and face recognition data or an iris pattern scan.
How will they affect British politics?
The Labour Party looks set to do badly in the Euro elections. This may trigger renewed calls for Brown’s resignation within the Labour Party. The Conservatives will use this as another opportunity to call for an immediate general election, which they are likely to win, maybe even by a landslide.
In general, it will be parties on the fringes of British politics that reap the benefits from the recent furor over MP expenses. In particular, the UK Independence Party will do well. The British National Party is likely to win its first European seat. If the Conservative Party loses seats to UKIP and BNP, the party leadership may be tempted to adopt a more hard-line position on issues concerning the EU, immigration and law and order. David Cameron has already pledged that his party will leave the centrist EPP after the election and establish a new party group of Eurosceptic European Conservatives in the EP.
Do people vote for their European candidate, or is it really a reaction to their national government?
Elections to the European Parliament are generally described as ‘second-order’ elections. That is, they are elections of less importance than general elections, and thus characterized by low turnout and lacklustre campaign. They often constitute a plebiscite on the national government’s performance, where vote choice is primarily decided by domestic political concerns rather than European politics.
This is particularly the case in Britain, where the political parties make few attempts to campaign on European issues and voters are uninformed about the European politics. In other European countries, there is a more rigorous debate on European issues, and voters are more likely to vote on the basis of concerns relevant to the European Union.
Turnout levels also vary considerably between member states. In the 2004 Euro elections, less than 20% of the electorate voted in Slovakia and Slovenia,whereas 82% voted in Malta and 73% in Italy. The participation rate in Britain at 38% was below the EU average of 46%.