news·6 min read

EU Parliament Elections

May 23, 2019

EU elections are going down this weekend. And populist parties are hoping to make significant gains.

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The Story

Hundreds of millions of EU citizens are headed to the ballot box to vote for the next European Parliament.

The Background

Every five years, the EU’s 28 member countries hold elections to fill seats on the European Parliament. There are 751 seats, distributed by population size (Germany gets the most seats). The parliament can’t propose laws – that’s up to the European Commission, whose 28 members (one for each country) are vetted by the parliament. But the group is responsible for approving, rejecting, or tweaking EU laws and hammering out the EU budget, among other things.

So who’s on it?

Each country puts up its own candidates and runs its own election. Elections start Thursday and occur over four days. In Parliament, representatives affiliate with different EU political parties. The biggest is the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which includes reps from Germany’s leading party.

We get into more about how the election works in Skimm This. And we break down how the EU works in Skimm Notes.

The Big Issue

The EU parliament election tends to have really low voter turnout. But there a few issues putting a brighter than normal spotlight on this year's election. Like…

Brexit…The UK was supposed to break up with the EU by this point. That didn’t happen. So now the UK is in the awkward position of electing another 73 parliament members to a body it voted to get out of years ago.

Euroskepticism…describes people who don’t want their country to integrate with the EU. Many from across the political spectrum see the EU as a bureaucratic PIA. And support for Euroskeptic parties is on the rise. Lawmakers are crossing their fingers for major gains in this weekend’s election. Euroskepticism can also overlap with a variety of other movements, including populism, nationalism, and the far-right. Speaking of...

Populism…as in a movement that distrusts what it considers elites (in this case the EU). Right now, the far-right, populist movement in Europe is being led by Italian Deputy PM Matteo Salvini. His new EU party wants to close borders to migrants – an attitude toward migrants that’s become increasingly common since the 2015 migrant crisis.

The far right...are also hoping for a breakthrough in this election. This label describes groups associated with severe anti-immigrant and anti-minority messaging, including against Muslims and Jews. They tend to be anti-EU since the EU allows freedom of movement between member states.

The Debate

To elect populist leaders or not, that is at least one of the questions.

The Impact

For the EU...more anti-EU members of Parliament – including populists, nationalists, and members of the far-right – could work to either reform or undermine the EU from within. Think: cause gridlock by refusing to sign off on budgets, as well as trade and immigration laws.

There’s also a potential feedback loop: as fringe political groups get more representation in Parliament, it could normalize them and boost their support numbers back at home. And with voter turnout going down, whoever does show up gets a disproportionately louder voice – which in this case could be highly organized, anti-EU groups.

For the US...the European Union is America’s largest trading partner – and it’s made up of some of America’s closest allies. Experts say nationalist movements working to break up the EU could put the future of strategic defense groups like NATO in jeopardy. Which could end up being a national security problem for the US.  


The EU was created in the aftermath of World War II – to try to build economic bonds and ensure political stability. But in recent years, far-right political groups – who’ve long been on the fringe – have been gaining traction. Now, they’re hoping to use an election with traditionally low turnout to expand their influence and gain a bigger platform.

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