Thursday’s European Elections Explained

By Phelim Brady

This week citizens across the European Union’s 28 member states will go to the polls to elect MEPs for the next five years. The UK votes in 12 regional constituencies and here in Cambridge, as part of the Eastern Region, we elect seven representatives to the European Parliament from party lists.

The European elections are a bit different this year as, for the first time, national EU governments are meant to take into account the results of the vote in choosing the new head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm and civil service. To this end the major pan-EU parties have all nominated candidates for Commission President, although it remains to be seen whether the continent’s prime ministers and presidents will take these candidates into account when they make their decision this summer and there is speculation that national leaders will end up picking someone else entirely.

Conservative MEPs have been pulled out of the mainstream centre-right party in the European Parliament, and now sit with a much smaller group of reformist Eurosceptic conservative parties which have not fielded a common candidate. Labour and the Lib Dems are part of the mainstream social democratic and liberal European groups which have put forward, respectively, Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt for Commission President. The fight to be the top candidate for President will be between Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker, the mainstream centre-right candidate, a contest which current polling suggests could be close.

In Britain the national polls show UKIP and Labour jostling for first place with just a few points between them, with the Conservatives in third place and the Lib Dems a distant fourth and possibly even fifth, depending on the performance of the Greens. There’s a lack of proper regional polling, but in our area it’s likely that UKIP will lead, perhaps winning three or even four MEPs, followed by the Conservatives and Labour picking up a seat or two each, with the Lib Dems or Greens perhaps winning one too. At the last election in 2009, the Conservatives won three seats, UKIP took two and both the Lib Dems and Labour took one in East Anglia.

The big story of the election is likely to be UKIP’s strong performance, although it’s worth noting some polls indicate around half of those who say they’re voting UKIP on Thursday don’t plan to support them next year. This will be a test for Cameron and his approach to the EU, and for Miliband, coming less than a year from the 2015 general election amid narrowing national polls. Commentators will also be closely watching to see how many MEPs the Lib Dems can hold onto, as some polls show them teetering on the edge of a wipeout.