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European Union electoral law: Current situation and historical background

Written by Silvia Kotanidis,

EU election. European Union parliament seats and a voting box on EU flag background, banner. 3d illustration

© Rawf8 / Fotolia

The European Parliament did not always enjoy the powers and democratic legitimacy it does now. This is clear from a quick glance at how Parliament has evolved. Starting life as an Assembly – a name reminiscent of institutions linked to international diplomacy – with members simply appointed by national parliaments of Member States, it grew into an institution, the European Parliament, directly elected by citizens and now the only one representing EU citizens directly. This transformation has taken several decades.

Despite Parliament’s increased role, the current electoral rules remain only partly harmonised, to the extent that there is no uniform electoral process for all Member States. The current situation is that certain fundamental principles are enshrined in the 1976 Electoral Act, but many aspects are regulated by national law. This lack of a uniform electoral process also leads to differences in treatment between EU citizens depending on their country of origin and potentially deprives European elections of a truly European dimension.

Several reforms of the EU electoral system have been attempted over the years, but not all have resulted in legislation. The introduction of a transnational constituency in particular is a perennially controversial issue. Some consider it a step towards the genuine ‘Europeanisation’ of elections, others believe that it could increase the distance between the public and elected representatives.

While the co-existence of differing electoral rules under the aegis of common European principles is probably destined to last, the latest reform – adopted in 2018 – will bring in mechanisms designed to increase public participation in the EU political debate and make the appointment of one of the top EU leadership roles, president of the European Commission, more ‘political’, by means of the Spitzenkandidaten process.


Read this briefing on ‘European Union electoral law: Current situation and historical background‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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