The Elections That Will Decide Europe’s Future

Why Voters Should Take Them Seriously

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage gestures as he leaves a polling station after voting in the European elections, in Biggin Hill, United Kingdom, May 2019 Hannah McKay / REUTERS

The EU is many things, but sexy isn’t one of them. Obsessed with procedure, reports, and committees, the bloc has always been a bogeyman for governments both inside and outside it, a symbol of constitutional overreach and Kafkaesque bureaucracy meant to frustrate earnest national politicians trying to help their citizens.

There’s something to those claims. The EU’s setup is unlike that of any other government. The compromises its designers made to balance power between European capitals and Brussels have led to a mishmash of the traditional legislative and executive branches, with power divided unevenly between the European Commission (which proposes legislation), the European Parliament (which amends and approves it), and the Council of the EU (which does the same). The Council of the EU is not to be confused with the European Council, made up of all the heads of state or government of EU member countries, or the Council of Europe, a human rights organization unaffiliated with the EU.

That institutional mess is partly why the upcoming elections for a new European Parliament have prompted so much skepticism among voters. Few EU citizens have any clue what Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) actually do, so most don’t bother voting. Turnout was not high in the first European Parliament elections, in 1979, and it has only fallen since. In the last elections, in 2014, just 43 percent of EU citizens voted, with turnout rates across eastern Europe averaging below 30 percent. Parties are happy to nominate anonymous functionaries who take orders from their respective capitals. In the 2014 election, only one out of ten British voters could name their MEP.

Yet the elections, which will take place May 23–26, matter more than most voters realize or most politicians acknowledge. They are the second-largest democratic exercise in the world, surpassed only by India’s general election. The European Parliament helps write the laws that govern more than 500 million people. And the EU is one of the few governments powerful enough to affect major

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