EP Elections: On Voting Rights, Candidacy, and Voting from Benin

EP-verkiezingen: Over Stemrecht, Kandidaatstelling en Stemmen vanuit Benin  - Shaping Europe

An explainer on the European Parliament elections: who can you vote for, and how do you get on a candidate list?

Every five years, the European Parliamentary elections (EP elections) take place. This first happened in June 1979, and this spring marks a milestone as the EP elections will be held for the tenth time. With around four hundred million eligible European voters across 27 different countries, in a few months, we will decide the direction the European Union (EU) will take. This decision-making process involves not only choosing a party but also voting for a candidate. But who is eligible to vote? Can anyone simply get on a candidate list? And what about voting and attendance obligations? This explainer on candidacy for EP elections addresses these questions. It’s interesting and important for everyone who will soon be able to – or in some countries, must – vote, but it’s also highly relevant for anyone with European political ambitions! So, read on quickly!

Who is eligible to vote in the EP elections?

According to Article 39 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU – with Poland having an opt-out – every citizen within the Union has the right to vote and stand as a candidate in the EP elections under the same conditions as national elections. If you have voting rights in the Netherlands during national elections, you also have them during European elections. However, due to differences in legislation regarding voting rights across EU member states, there are some variations. In most countries, any person aged 18 or older can vote, while Greeks can vote from the age of 17, and Austrians, Belgians, Germans, and Maltese from the age of 16. In all countries, having the nationality of an EU member state is a requirement for voting in the EP elections. To ensure everyone has the opportunity to vote, employers are obligated to allow their employees the opportunity to vote, even if it means voting during working hours.

Some people may be denied their voting rights, although this only happens in extreme situations. The rules on this matter also vary by country. Generally, it can only happen if you have committed a certain offense (often a serious crime or one related to elections, such as electoral fraud). In such cases, a judge must make the ruling. However, it’s important to note that these are unique situations, and detainees usually have the right to vote.

As mentioned earlier, the voting age varies by country. This is because elections are largely organized according to national regulations. However, a proposal was made in May 2022 to harmonize (most of) the rules for EP elections across all member states, including rules regarding the voting age. This would promote equality and prevent discrimination. It’s not fair if an Italian can vote two years later than a Belgian. If the proposal is approved, the voting age for EP elections throughout the EU would be 16, with room for exceptions. This would mean that Dutch citizens can vote in EP elections earlier than in national elections. However, the implementation of this new regulation is uncertain. First, the proposal must be unanimously approved by the European Council. Furthermore, constitutional provisions in individual EU member states would need to be adjusted, which is always a lengthy process. Moreover, the proposal is not very popular in the EP; only seven countries are currently in favor of lowering the voting age.

Voting in or from another country

EU citizens can also vote in the EP elections if they do not reside in the EU. However, this process is slightly different. For example, our secretary Daniel, who resides in Benin (West Africa) and has Dutch nationality, can choose to authorize someone to vote on his behalf. This means that someone else, such as a friend or family member, can also vote for him at a polling station in the Netherlands. You can also authorize someone to vote on your behalf if you are ill or on vacation. However, authorizations are not always ideal. Both Daniel and his family member or friend must sign the authorization, which can be challenging when you live in Benin!

Another option is voting by mail. If Daniel chooses this option, he must send his mail-in ballot, received earlier, to a mail-in voting bureau in The Hague or deliver it to the Dutch embassy in the Beninese capital, Cotonou. The latter will then forward his mail-in ballot to the mail-in voting bureau in The Hague, where the vote will be counted along with others. If you live in the EU but not in the country of your nationality, like our editors Dalia (French living in the Netherlands) and Iva (Bulgarian living in the Netherlands), you can still vote for a person on the list in the country where you reside. However, you must register in advance. Note that the rules on this may vary by member state.

Compulsory voting

Voter turnout for EP elections is usually not very high, especially compared to national elections. Some countries have come up with solutions for this. Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, and Luxembourg have voting or attendance obligations. Voting obligation means you are required to vote, while attendance obligation means you must show up but are not necessarily required to vote. Belgium has an attendance obligation. You must appear at the polling station, but you are not obliged to vote. Although there are penalties for those who do not show up, nothing usually happens in practice. This means that the attendance obligation is not enforced. Nevertheless, voter turnout in Belgium is much higher than the EU average in 2019: 88.47% compared to 50.66%.

Luxembourg has a voting obligation, risking a fine of up to a thousand euros if you do not vote. However, there are exceptions. If you are over 75, the voting obligation does not apply, and if you do not reside in Luxembourg, you do not have to vote either. Voter turnout in Luxembourg for the previous EP elections was 84.24%. This is high compared to the EU average but lower than in Belgium, where only an unofficial attendance obligation applies. The cause of this could be that there are many people aged 75 and older in Luxembourg, who are exempt from the obligation to vote.

How do you get on a candidate list?

After the elections in June 2024, the EP will have 720 members. This means that 720 candidates will be elected, representing all EU member states. The more inhabitants a country has, the more seats it may elect. However, specific rules for candidacy in EP elections vary by country. Thanks to the Electoral Act of 1976, there are also some common EU rules. An important rule is that member states can determine a minimum threshold of up to 5%. For the 2019 elections, for example, Sweden set a threshold of 4%. This means that a party or candidate must achieve at least 4% of the votes to have a chance at a seat. The introduction of a threshold often eliminates smaller parties, leaving the larger parties.

In most countries, anyone with the right to vote can also stand as a candidate for the EP elections. For Dutch citizens, this roughly means that being 18 years or older and possessing Dutch nationality. However, most people who want to stand as candidates are usually affiliated with an existing party. Parties often have internal elections to determine who will be on the list and in what position. Generally, those in the top three of a party list have more experience in both politics and the party itself. They may come from national politics or have been active in the party’s youth department. So, you can’t assume that you’ll easily land a high position on a list just because you voted for a party once. Those who disagree with existing parties may also establish a new party to run as candidates.

If you look up who is in the EP on the internet, you’ll notice that there are also some independent Members of Parliament (MEP) on the list. The party description for them would be ‘independent member.’ These people were initially affiliated with a party but distanced themselves from it during their term. Because they were elected as individuals, they can finish their term and keep their seat, either independently or with another party. The other party can also be established by the split-off during the same term and does not need to be an existing party.

If you are elected, you are not obligated to complete your term. Although not ideal, every MEP can choose to stop at some point during the five years. If someone stops, the seat goes to the next person on the party’s candidate list. For example, in the previous EP elections, the PvdA (Labour Party) obtained six seats. If one of the elected individuals resigns, in general, the seventh person on the list would enter the EP.

There you have it!

Now you know everything about voting rights and candidacy for the European Parliament elections. However, the MEPs and candidates themselves are still relatively unknown. Therefore, a second article will be published soon, introducing the most interesting and unique (candidate) parliamentarians. From a beekeeper and a Disney actress to a TV chef and a Paralympic swimmer to the youngest MEP ever: the EP also offers diversity!

Loes ter Horst is pursuing a master’s in Middle Eastern Studies (University of Amsterdam). Last summer, she completed the MSc in Crisis and Security Management (Leiden University) after earning a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences (Utrecht University).

Image: Shutterstock