By Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems.

Later this week, voters in the EU’s 27 member states will elect the tenth European Parliament. As is the norm for multi-winner elections at all levels across Europe, the 720 MEPs will be chosen using Proportional Representation (PR). Indeed, in terms of the size of the electorate, it is the largest set of PR elections currently on the global electoral calendar. Reflecting the flexibility and diversity of forms of PR used across Europe, the rules of election vary between member states, but why and how?

The Parliament and proportionality

Initially created as a purely consultative assembly, with members co-opted from national parliaments, the intention from the 1957 Treaty of Rome onwards was always for a directly-elected body. But the failure to agree on a uniform voting system delayed the first elections for two decades, until a compromise was reached that European electoral rules would be placed in the hands of member states as a ‘temporary’ measure.

For the inaugural 1979 elections, all members chose some form of PR, except for the United Kingdom, who chose First Past the Post (FPTP) for members elected in Great Britain (Northern Ireland’s three members were elected by the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) instead). The British government had officially proposed an open list system, but it was defeated by 321-224 in the House of Commons on a free vote.

Several attempts were made across the 1980s and 90s to restart the process of designing a single European voting system, particularly with the Parliament – the only directly-elected EU institution – gaining a more important position within the institutional reforms of the early 1990s. There was also growing distaste in Brussels at the frequently skewed nature of the British delegation. Not only were massive majorities of the GB seats being won on minority votes, but the county-size constituencies meant the SDP-Liberal Alliance won no seats on 19% of the vote in 1984 and the Greens were similarly denied representation in 1989, despite winning 15% of the vote. 

This all culminated in the 1993 de Gucht Report which recommended a phasing-in process, including a demand that at least one-third of British MEPs be elected proportionally in the interim. Simultaneously, Labour’s Plant Report on voting systems proposed adopting a regional closed list system for European elections. This was implemented by the subsequent Labour government, in spite of repeated disagreements with the House of Lords, who favoured an open list system.

27 Members, 27 forms of PR?

With the UK’s belated switch, since the 1999 elections, the European Parliament has been entirely elected by PR (though, in practice, the single MEP representing Belgium’s German-speaking community is elected by FPTP). A 2002 amendment to EU law made such a situation irreversible. Nonetheless, there is still no single electoral system – even the voting age is not uniform (16-year-olds can vote in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Malta, with a voting age of 17 in Greece).

Broadly, the differences in European voting systems reflect the differences in national voting systems – for instance, Malta and Ireland, who use STV for national and local elections, also choose their MEPs using STV; the rest use List PR systems. Similarly, countries whose MPs are chosen using open or semi-open lists, such as Austria, Finland or Luxembourg, tend to also give voters choices between European candidates; while those where lists of parliamentary candidates are closed and solely decided by parties, like in Germany or Spain, follow similar rules for European elections.

But there are limits to the national-European similarities. Only two member states (Netherlands and Slovakia) do not use some form of constituency when electing their national parliament. But only two (Belgium and Ireland) really use any for European elections, with mixed-member systems completely absent. Rules on thresholds can also vary, most notably in Germany, whose strict 5% threshold does not apply in European elections, allowing parties to win seats on small shares of the vote (Die PARTEI took a seat on just 0.63% in 2014). A full list of differences can be seen in the table at the bottom of this article.

Common principles

The concern remains that differences in these rules can create a little bit of unfairness, with it easier to get elected in certain member states. For instance, were Die PARTIE standing in France, the 5% threshold there would have prevented them, and seven other parties that won seats in Germany, from getting elected. A desire to level the playing field, while acknowledging the inability to agree on a uniform system, means that more recent reform proposals have centred on merely establishing ‘common principles’. A 2022 proposal favoured a minimum threshold in large member states, a single set of rules on who could vote, as well as the creation of an additional 28 Europe-wide MEPs, to be elected by a uniform second vote system in all member states. It has not yet become law. 

But although it’s easy to see how introducing common principles or minimum standards could improve the system of European elections, there is clearly a degree of merit in some of the reservations that a few member states have about full harmonisation. Allowing continuity between electoral rules within member states for different types of election means voters are less likely to get confused about what they can and can’t do in the ballot box. Plus, due to the varied sizes of member states and thus number of MEPs they elect (even if the system overrepresents smaller countries and underrepresents the largest), there is always going to be a degree of discrepancy anyway.

And, most crucially, the proportional principle is already universally embedded – this is merely a dispute between different types of PR. Each national delegation is already reflecting how that country voted. Europe remains a proportional continent, just with a few unfortunate exceptions outside the European Parliament.

Photo credit (EU flags): Guillaume Périgois