Europe’s kaleidoscope of electoral systems for electing MEPs

This post is based on a press briefing I made in the European Parliament in Brussels last week. For video footage, see here. The contents of this post will be updated as further details emerge on the member state electoral systems.

Simon and me in the EP

The European Parliament (EP) elections occur between May 22 and 25 this year.  Hundreds of millions of voters are eligible to vote (though far less actually will) for the 751 MEPs from 28 member states, making this the one of the largest exercises in representative democracy in the world, and certainly the most ambitious in terms of the range of countries involved.

A detail not often appreciated is that – despite the passing of legislation on ‘uniform electoral procedures’ in 2002 – there continues to be a very wide range of variation on the different electoral systems used across the various member states.  This can have important implications for who gets elected, for how they get elected, and for what they do once elected.

The following Table gives a sense of the range of variation in electoral system design for EP elections.

ep elec

There are two key things to focus on – proportionality (affecting who gets elected) and personalization (affecting how candidates run for office and how MEPs represent voters).


First, the final column reports the electoral thresholds, which give a useful indication of the minimum proportion of votes that parties must secure of their to win seats in the EP.  These come in two forms: legal and effective thresholds. Legal thresholds are what they say on the tin – legally set minimum vote percentages that a party must secure.  Under the 2002 legislation a country is allowed to set this at any level they like as long as it is no greater than 5%.  If a country chooses not to set a legal threshold, it is possible to work out approximately what the actual threshold is – referred to as the ‘effective threshold’.

As we can see, more than half of the member states (15) set a legal threshold. The German government has just been banned from doing this as the result of a constitutional court judgement earlier today (see here).  As a consequence, the effective threshold for being elected a German MEP this May will be less than 1% of the vote.  This has important implications for smaller parties.  The smaller the threshold the easier it is for them to win seats.  We can expect therefore a lot more small, even micro, party candidates to pick up seats in Germany in this EP election.  The other countries where small parties can be expected to do well (based simply on the low electoral thresholds; those of 4% or less) include: Austria, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. Ireland – North and South – are the outliers: they both have the highest electoral threshold (18.7% and 16.3%), making life very difficult for small parties.


The other main feature of electoral system variation is over how voters get to vote in the election.  Here the main focus is on the ballot structure (though the nature of the electoral district does also have a bearing).  The following Figure (which is likely to have some errors, but is the best I can do based on the information to hand) gives a sense of how ballot structure can vary.


The EP electoral systems can be grouped into three main types: ‘open’ systems, where voters have a lot of say over which individual candidates are elected; ‘closed’ systems, where the parties determine which of their candidates are elected based on the overall proportion of votes received by the party, and in the middle, ‘ordered’ systems, where voters – to varying degrees – can have some limited influence on the electoral fate of individual candidates.  There is plenty of research that shows how these variations in ballot structure can impact on how candidates campaign and how MEPs represent citizens, but most of this is behind a paywall (e.g. see here).  For a useful LSE blog post that covers some of this, see here.  The basic point is that as you move up the scale from closed to ordered to open systems the tendency is for candidates/MEPs to focus less on their parties and more on their own individual constituencies.

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