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Complex rules

May 31, 2009

375 million people are eligible to vote for the EU Parliament this week, but only one half of them is expected to hit the polls - in an electoral system which is as intricate as the 27-member block is widespread.

View of a plenary session of the EU Parliament in Strasbourg
736 deputies from 27 countries make up the EU ParliamentImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Like so much else in the European Union, going to the polls to choose an EU Parliament is a complicated compromise. Actually, EU law says that voting procedures for the European Parliament must be the same in all member countries. But that is still not the case, 30 years after the first directly elected parliament.

Each EU country continues to exercise its own voting procedures and has its own nominating process for choosing candidates. The only common aspect they share is proportional representation, which is mandatory in all member states.

Differences, on the other hand, begin with the legal voting age. In Austria, for example, young people, who turn 16 years of age by election day, are entitled to vote. In all the other states, the minimum age is 18 years. Candidates in all but two countries must also be at least 18 years old, except in Cyprus and Italy, where the minimum age to be a parliamentarian is 25. There are also no unified rules on how many votes a party must get to be represented in parliament. In most countries there is a so-called five-percent hurdle, as a percentage of votes cast, but in Austria, it's four percent.

Voters can vote anywhere

The glass facade of the EU parliament building in Brussels
Plenary sessions of the EU parliament sometimes take place in Brussels

There is agreement, at least, on where a voter can vote. In fact, all the eligible voters of EU countries can vote in any country they choose, regardless of whether they are a citizen of that country or not. That means a Dane can vote in Ireland, a German in the Netherlands, or a Greek in Spain.

The 375 million eligible voters choose 736 parliamentary deputies. How many deputies there are per country depends -- again -- on a complicated formula. Germany, the EU's largest country is entitled to select 99 deputies. France, Italy and Britain send 78 to Strasbourg, the seat of parliament, while Spain and Poland are allowed 54 representatives. The proportional representation continues down the line to the smallest EU member, Malta, which gets to choose five deputies.

Four days of voting

A woman walks along a line of election posters for the upcoming European elections, in Freiburg, southern Germany
Germany will elect 99 representatives for the EU ParliamentImage: AP

The EU member states could also not agree on a common election day. So, instead, they introduced an "election week," which, according to EU law, extends this year from Thursday, June 4 to Sunday, June 7.

Traditionally, the Dutch and the Britons go to the polls on Thursday, Ireland votes on Friday, while Italy takes both Friday and Saturday. Most of the other countries vote on Sunday. The last voting booths close on Sunday at 10pm Central European Time. Only then can the first results be announced - even from those countries that had voted days earlier.

Dutch media, however, publish their projections after polls close in the Netherlands on Thursday. The German media announce their first projections at 6pm on Sunday, but it takes ten days before the final, official results are made known because Portugal needs that much time to counts its ballots.

Low voter turnout expected

The EU parliament building in Strasbourg covered with slogans promoting the EU constitution in several languages
European unity means getting 27 nations to agree on the same thingsImage: AP

The national election commissioners pass on the results from their respective countries to the EU parliament office in Brussels beginning at 10pm on Sunday. The office then calculates how the seats in the newly elected parliament are to be distributed. Recent surveys suggest that the conservatives, as before, will be the largest parliamentary group, followed by the Socialists.

The big unknown is voter turnout. For the last 30 years, since the EU parliament has been directly elected, voter participation has dropped steadily. Research shows that a low turnout gives splinter groups a better chance of winning seats because they can generally mobilize their supporters better.

The last opinion poll conducted at the behest of the European Parliament forecasts an average voter turnout of about 43 percent across the EU. The survey found that the most important issues on voters' minds were unemployment and the consequences of the global economic crisis.

Essentially, there are 27 separate election campaigns going on for the European Parliament because of the different election systems and the lack of any pan-European list of candidates.

The outcome of the elections will be determined by "the different political issues in each member state and often the protests against the governing national government," said Jacki Davis, a political scientist at the European Policy Institute in Brussels.

Author: Bernd Riegert /gb

Editor: Toma Tasovac