Why do the European Parliament elections matter?

Credit: AP

By Hannah Ward-Glenton, ITV News Producer

People across the European Union (EU) headed to the polls to elect representatives to the bloc's parliament over the weekend.

Some 360 million people across the 27 EU nations turned out to elect 720 European Parliament lawmakers, with voting having taken place between Thursday and Sunday. The first results were expected on Sunday night.

The elections happen every five years, making this the first set of EU elections since the UK officially left the bloc after Brexit, in January 2020.

Each country elects a number of people to the EU Parliament (MEPs) based on the size of its population.

So, having now officially left the EU, why should anybody in the UK care about its elections?

What does the EU Parliament have to do with us?

While the UK voted to leave the EU in 2017, so no longer has seats in the European Parliament, the ramifications of the elections will still be felt across the Channel.

These elections are very meaningful as they will establish who is going to lead Europe and what will be their priorities over the medium term, Mujtaba Rahman, Europe managing director at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group told ITV News.

He said that if Labour were to go on to form the next UK government, Sir Keir Starmer would likely "lean into the EU" in terms of foreign and security policy, while also possibly rethinking the UK-EU economic relationship.

If Rishi Sunak remains prime minister, the politics of the EU are particularly important in terms of negotiating Donald Trump's possible return to the White House, assessing competition threats from China and how to handle Ukraine, Mr Rahman added.

Voting to leave the EU also means that decisions are imposed on the UK without the input of UK ministers and members of the EU, Catherine Gegout, associate professor in international relations at University of Nottingham, told ITV News.

"The UK is now no longer a ‘rule-maker’ but a ‘rule-taker’ state," Dr Gegout said.

"If the UK wants to interact with the EU, it must abide by its rules, that is, rules on visas for UK citizens who are no longer EU citizens, GDPR, Artificial Intelligence, trade, and consumer protection," she added.

Defence and security

Defence is one of those areas where the UK and EU cannot easily be separated.

"That's very much where close cooperation is needed, to tackle European security issues, whether that's Ukraine or Russia's actions, or Grey Zone actions in the Baltics or elsewhere," Armida van Rij, senior research fellow for the Chatham House Europe programme told ITV News.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a press conference in Kyiv in November. Credit: AP

The UK and EU have largely been aligned on aid for Ukraine following Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, for example.

In April, EU leaders agreed on an aid package for Ukraine worth 50 billion euros (£42.6 billion), set to last until 2027, while Mr Sunak announced a £500 million boost to Ukraine aid that same month.

Mr Sunak also announced "a new chapter" in the security relationship between the UK and Germany, saying the countries are stronger together, "whether that is [in] defending against Russian aggression or driving economic growth and technological advance".

The issue is divisive within the bloc itself however, as there are countries within the EU that are looking to limit the supply of aid to Ukraine - primarily Hungarian and Slovakian Prime Ministers Viktor Orban and Robert Fico respectively.

The UK has also worked closely with EU member states in responding to the Israel-Hamas conflict, particularly in terms of negotiating towards a resolution within the UN Security Council.

Climate policy

The last EU Parliament elections saw a big surge in Green party votes, with climate and environmental policies taking precedent off the back of climate protests led by Greta Thunberg.

The Greens went on to take their biggest number in Parliament, but early results suggest a big drop in seats after the weekend.

In the face of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many countries, including the UK, opted to phase out Russian oil imports to try and put an economic strain on the Kremlin, pushing discussions around energy security - exactly where that energy should come from and how much it should cost - higher up the agenda.

In 2021, Russian gas made up 40% of EU imports, but that dropped to around 8% in 2023, according to European Commission data. Russian imports accounted for 8% of total UK oil demand in 2022.

At the latest United Nations COP summit in December, EU big hitters such as Germany, France and Italy, as well as the UK, committed to a deal to "transition away" from fossil fuels.

But the balance between energy security - and its effect on the cost of living - and climate change is a tightrope being navigated across Europe.

The UK works closely with the EU when it comes to its energy security and climate commitments - and it will continue to do so in the coming months and years, meaning the election outcome will have ramifications for the UK.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every day in the run-up to the election Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…


The EU elections very much echoed the UK General Election when it comes to migration being a key voter issue.

The defence of the EU’s borders has been a main campaign theme, with the discussion driven predominantly by Europe’s far-right political parties.

“We are not against human rights, but we want strong borders in Europe... Because it is ours,” André Ventura, leader of Portugal's far-right Chega party, said in a meeting of far-right groups in May.

"We cannot continue to have this massive influx of Islamic and Muslim immigrants into Europe," he added.

While there are strict borders between the UK and most of the EU, the geographical proximity between the two means the immigration politics of one will inevitably impact the other.

And both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have been asked how they will handle immigration after July 4.

While Rishi Sunak has indicated that he could pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights if that's what it takes for his Rwanda plan to work, Keir Starmer said at the ITV News debate on Tuesday that the UK would "not pull out of international agreements and international law which is respected the world over".

Regardless of who wins, there will certainly be dealings with the EU when it comes to how to handle both legal and illegal migration, negotiated with whoever wins power at this weekend's European elections.

A shift to the right

Early results suggest the EU elections saw a big shift towards far-right parties, who have campaigned on populist policies on the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine and migration.

Results so far suggest those votes were taken from the Greens and the liberal parties who started to flourish in the last EU elections and have run the EU parliament with the Christian Democrats over the past five years.

The farmers protests that have ricocheted through Europe, for example, have been based around climate change arguments and cost-of-living concerns - both of which far-right parties have said they will address.

Tractors parked near the European Parliament in protest as European leaders meet for an EU summit in Brussels on February 1, 2024. Credit: AP

In France, projections suggest that Emmanuel Macron may only have won around 15% of votes over the weekend, while Marine Le Pen's right-wing National Rally, could take 31-32%.

The result was jarring enough that Mr Macron opted to call a snap election on Sunday night. The next French presidential election wasn't due to take place until 2027, and Mr Macron's term will last until then, unless he is ousted.

Ms Le Pen herself didn't stand in the EU elections, but her party was expected to gain ground based on their anti-immigration, nationalist policies.

The party's lead European Parliament candidate Jordan Bardella campaigned on promises to limit free movement of migrants within the EU's borders, to ease EU pressure on Russia and to relax EU climate rules.

Similarly in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has seen a marked uptick in popularity since the last EU Parliament elections, and came second to the Christian Democratic Union.

The party of current Chancellor Olaf Scholz looks set to have its worst national result since its formation, coming in third place over the weekend.

The AfD had already strengthened its footing in the states of Bavaria and Hesse in regional elections in October, largely based on voters' migration concerns.

The surging powers of the hard nationalist right are also exemplified by leaders, such as Hungary's Viktor Orban, Italy's Georgia Meloni, and the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, who last month finally agreed a provisional coalition deal to form a right-wing government after winning the Dutch election in November.

National parties are part of bigger, EU-wide political groups in the European Parliament, and with 176 seats out of 705 as of the end of the last plenary session in April, the centre-right European People’s Party (EEP) is currently the largest.

Two groups with far-right parties, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID), could become the third- and fourth-largest political groups as a result of voting over the weekend.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen belongs to the EPP and she has managed to remain at the helm of the EU’s executive arm after the election.

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A larger turnout?

EU Parliament elections don't tend to drive huge voter turnout, and those who do vote tend to cast their ballots more in protest than with EU-wide issues in mind, Ms van Rij said.

"Usually it's any kind of frustration or resentment towards whoever is currently in power, so [voters] don't really think about the bigger picture. They're very concerned about their national and local issues."

It varies hugely from nation to nation, with the Netherlands seeing around 40% of people making the effort to vote, while turnout in Belgium tends to sit around the 80% mark - although voting is mandatory in the de facto capital of the EU.

In April, the latest edition of the European Parliament’s Eurobarometer highlighted a surge of interest in the upcoming election. Around 71% of Europeans said they are likely to cast a ballot.

Belgium also allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to vote for the first time, joining Austria, Germany and Malta.

A litmus test for upcoming national elections?

The results of these EU elections have already had implications for national politics, with President Macron opting to call a snap general election, and Belgian leader Alexander De Croo saying he would resign after his centre-right party saw its vote-share nosedive.

Austria will have its national elections in the autumn and the country is widely anticipated to vote in a more right-wing government than the current Conservative-Green coalition, with the country having seen a far-right surge over the weekend.

That would have particular significance in terms of EU support for Ukraine, as the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is likely to take the reins, tends to side with the Kremlin politically, and therefore would likely vote against actions to support Ukraine.

Germany's next national elections need to happen before October 2025, and analysts will be looking at the EU election results as an indication of how deeply ingrained the AfD has become and how significant a role they will play next year.

The latest YouGov data suggests that right-wing party would take 18% of the vote share if the election were to happen next week, compared to the 10.3% they won in the federal election in 2021.

When did each country start voting?

June 3: Estonia

Thursday: The Netherlands

Friday: Czech Republic, Ireland

Saturday 8: Italy, Latvia, Malta, Slovakia

Sunday 9: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden

The first results were expected on Sunday night.

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