How is the European Parliament Elected?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 21st May 2019

Voters across the EU will be heading to the polls this week to elect the 751 representatives to the European Parliament (known as MEPs). Elections will be held in the UK on the 23rd of May with the rest of Europe voting between 23–26 May, with results expected once the last polls close on Sunday evening.

Elections to the European Parliament take place every five years. More than 400 million citizens are eligible to vote making these elections one of the biggest democratic exercises in the world.

While the elections must be based on proportional representation, each member state gets to decide the details of the electoral system used to elect their group of MEPs (Table 1).

Each country can also decide the exact election day within a four-day span from Thursday to Sunday. The voting age, whether citizens can vote by post or in their host country may also vary.

Table 1: Summary of Voting Systems Used in EU Countries

Member State Number of MEPs Voting System Voting Day Electoral Threshold
Austria 18 Open list Sunday 4%
Belgium* 21 Open list Sunday 5%
Bulgaria 17 Open list Sunday None
Croatia 11 Open list Sunday 5%
Cyprus 6 Open list Sunday 1.8%
Czech Republic 21 Open list Saturday & Sunday 5%
Denmark 13 Open list Sunday None
Estonia 6 Open list Sunday None
Finland 13 Open list Sunday None
France 74 Closed list Sunday 5%
Germany 96 Closed list Sunday None
Greece 21 Open list Sunday 3%
Hungary 21 Closed list Sunday 5%
Ireland 11 STV Friday None
Italy 73 Open list Sunday 4%
Latvia 8 Open list Saturday 5%
Lithuania 11 Open list Sunday 5%
Luxembourg 6 Open list Sunday None
Malta 6 STV Saturday None
Netherlands 26 Open list Thursday None
Poland 51 Open list Sunday 5%
Portugal 21 Closed list Sunday None
Romania 32 Closed list Sunday 5%
Slovakia 13 Open list Saturday 5%
Slovenia 8 Open list Sunday None
Spain 54 Closed list Sunday None
Sweden 20 Open list Sunday 4%
United Kingdom 73 Closed list in Great Britain; STV in Northern Ireland Thursday None

Belgian MEPs are elected using the D’Hondt method, but the electoral college of the German-speaking community de facto uses First Past the Post as it elects only one MEP.


Open and closed lists

While there is a lot of variation in the finer detail between each member state, the vast majority of European Parliamentary elections can be grouped together as Party List systems. In Party List systems, constituencies are bigger than under First Past the Post and voters elect a group of MEPs. These constituencies could be the whole country or a region or city. In this system, voters get MEPs roughly in proportion to how many people voted for each party. Some countries decided to use thresholds to stop parties with very low support getting a seat (Table 1), others limit the size of their constituencies to create an effective threshold.

Seven EU member states – including Great Britain – decided to elect their MEPs with a ‘closed’ list system. On the ballot paper, voters are presented with a list of parties. Voters vote for a party and each party decides who their candidates are and the order in which they will be elected. If a party wins enough votes for 2 candidates to be elected, the top two on the list get the seats.

19 EU countries decided to adopt more democratic ‘open’ lists systems. In these systems parties still get seats in proportion to the number of votes they receive, but voters get to vote for the individual candidates.

The UK used First Past the Post to elect its MEPs until 1999 when Westminster passed the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 to change the system. The UK now uses closed Party Lists to elect 70 MEPs from the 11 regions and nations of Great Britain (Table 2), while Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect its three MEPs.

Table 2: GB Constituencies and Number of MEPs

Constituency MEPs to be elected
East Midlands 5
East of England 7
London 8
North East England 3
North West England 8
South East England 10
South West England 6
West Midlands 7
Yorkshire and the Humber 6
Scotland 6
Wales 4


The more MEPs a region elects the lower the level of support needed to get an MEP. It is, therefore, harder for small parties to win seats in the North East than in the South East. Party Lists deliver a more proportional result and allow for the diversity of public opinion to be better represented. But unlike STV – which gives voters a genuine choice on who to vote for – or even an open list system, the UK’s closed Party List system takes power out of the hands of voters at large by preventing them choosing or rejecting individual candidates.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Ireland, Malta and Northern Ireland use the Single Transferable Vote to elect their MEPs. As with Party Lists, voters elect a small group of representatives in bigger areas, like a small city or county.

Each elector has one vote. Voters number candidates in order of preference, with a number one for their favourite – they can rank all candidates or just vote for their preferred candidate.

To get elected, a candidate needs to reach a set amount of votes based on the number of seats to be filled and the number of votes cast. If your favourite candidate already has enough votes to win or stands no chance of winning, your vote is transferred to your next choice based on how you ranked candidates. This means you can vote as you please, without worrying about wasting or splitting the vote.

STV puts power in the hands of the public – voters can choose between candidates from the same or different parties, or for independent candidates.

The way we elect our MEPs in the UK is now much better than the system in place before 1999. But the closed list system is still far from perfect and limits voter choice. As we recommended in our 2014 report Close the Gap, the British government always had the power to change the voting system of the whole of the UK to STV, creating a deeper connection between voters and their individual MEPs.

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