Why does the European Parliament matter?
The European Parliament doesn't work in the same way that national parliaments do. When it comes to the EU, the kinds of powers that you would usually see shared between a parliament and the government at national level are instead split between three institutions: the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament.
The Commission is in charge of putting suggestions for new legislation and policies on the table. Although it is possible for governments to make proposals for new laws, usually it's almost always the Commission that does this. The Commission is also responsible for implementing existing laws. For example, if a country is breaking EU law, the Commission can take it to court. The Commission has a President with (after the UK leaves) 26 Commissioners underneath him/her, who are each in charge of a particular issue. The Commission President and the Commissioners have a lot of influence on what kinds of law and policies get made, and how aggressively or not the Commission goes after a country that is breaking the rules.
The Council is made up of ministers from each national government. When the Commission puts a proposal for new laws or policies on the table, it's up to the Council and the European Parliament to then negotiate between them and make changes. There are some areas where the European Parliament doesn't have an equal say, like on foreign policy, where the Council is in charge. But for most topics, the European Parliament has as much power as the Council to change laws and policies proposed by the Commission or to derail them completely. The European Parliament also has a say over the EU's budget.
The European Parliament doesn't just play a role as lawmaker. It's also important because it has influence over who gets appointed to the Commission, including its President. Technically speaking, it's national governments in the Council that appoint the Commission President. But since the last elections in 2014, there has been an informal arrangement according to which each of the political groups chooses its own candidate to become Commission President. It's referred to as the spitzenkandidat process. You can learn more about it here. The idea is that the Council will appoint as Commission President the candidate of whichever political group has the biggest number of seats after the elections.
What are political groups – doesn't the European Parliament have political parties like in national politics?
Although these are European elections, pretty much all the parties competing for votes are national parties. After the elections, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sort themselves into different political groups. These political groups work similarly to political parties in national parliaments in that MEPs are supposed to have similar ideals and work and vote together. Unlike in many national parliaments, though, MEPs can't be forced to vote with their political group.
In the current European Parliament, there are eight political groups, ranging from the far left to the far right of politics. MEPs sort themselves into political groups according to their political preferences rather than their nationality. The numbers we give below reflect the situation as it stood at the beginning of February this year.
For example, MEPs that belong to centre-right national parties, like the Partido Popular from Spain or the Christian Democrats from Germany, tend to sit in the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group. The EPP is currently the largest political group in the European Parliament, with 217 seats. Similarly, MEPs that belong to centre-left national parties, like the Partito Democratico from Italy or the Partido Socialista from Portugal, sit in the centre-left Group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). This is currently the second largest group in the European Parliament, with 186 seats. Both of these political groups are expected to lose seats in the elections.
The six other political groups are:
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA)
Italy's Matteo Salvini whose Lega was part of the ENF is now forming a new political group called the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN).
Some MEPs and parties that don’t belong to any political group
If you'd like to know which political group a party from your country sits in, then check out this link. You can browse national parties from across the EU or enter the name of a party, and it will tell you which political group they belong to in the European Parliament.
How do political groups form?
Political groups in the European Parliament can change, especially around election time. Sometimes MEPs move from one group to another. Sometimes new groups are created. For example, the ENF group was only created in 2015. And political groups can lose or gain seats between elections. For example, according to polling data and assuming that the same national parties remain part of these groups, it looks like the two largest political groups on the centre right and centre left (the EPP and the S&D, respectively) will shrink.
According to the European Parliament’s internal rules, to form a political group, a minimum of 25 MEPs from at least seven EU countries need to sign up. When MEPs form a political group they get certain privileges, like extra speaking time, a budget for administrative support and the right to lead negotiations on legislation.
It's possible that the 2019 elections could really shake up some political groups. For example, assuming that the UK leaves the EU before the elections, there will be no more MEPs from the UK. Currently there are 73 MEPs from the UK. Their departure will have a big impact on the ECR group, which has 75 MEPs (as of 4th February 2019) and will lose 20 MEPs from the UK's Conservative Party and one from Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Party. It's possible to imagine, for example, that to make up its lost numbers, the ECR might try to invite parties with similar far-right, Eurosceptic ideas that currently sit with other political groups, to join it or make a new, more powerful group. If this happens, it would not only strengthen the ECR group, it would also weaken the other three larger political groups, the EPP, S&D and ALDE.
Despite big changes, we estimate that there will be no more than 30% of MEPs who belong to anti-values parties. That means that there will still be a very large majority of MEPs who could come together to protect the rule of law, pluralist democracy and fundamental rights. Head on over to our #Vote4Values tracker to check out the various possible coalitions that pro-values MEPs could form to stand up for our basic values.
Find out more:
What do we mean by 'anti-values', and where do we get our data from? Here's our methodology.
This could be the most important EP elections ever. Why? Watch this.
Take our quiz to see why you should vote in the EP elections.
If you're all set to go, dive into our #Vote4Values Tracker.