By Jonathan Moore
The European elections this year represent the largest trans-national elections in history. From the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) 736 MEPs will be elected by an electorate of more than 500 million over a period of three days between June 4-7.
In the UK, elections are traditionally held on a Thursday which is why we'll be voting ahead of 25 of our European neighbours. The Dutch are also voting on the 4th. There will be 72 MEPs returned to parliament from the UK, elected by the nine English regions along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is lower than the number returned in 2004 because this election is the first to include Bulgaria and Romania, requiring a redistribution of seats across Europe. The number of seats each region is allocated is based on their population relative to the rest of the country and runs from three for the North East and Northern Ireland to ten for the South East.
In Britain voters will select candidates using the d'Hondt method of proportional representation from closed party lists. Voters select their party of choice and once the total votes are counted seats are allocated in terms of the proportion of the vote each party received. Parties submit a list of their candidates in order of preference prior to the election and from this list MEPs are selected. So if a party receives a proportion of the vote which is equal to three seats then the top three names on their list will be selected as MEPs.
However, in Northern Ireland they use a single transferable vote system. Each party selects a single candidate and voters select as many or as few candidates as they want in order of preference. Initially the first preferences of voters are counted and candidates who receive the required number of votes are selected. If the requisite number of candidates is not selected from this first count then the surplus votes of the elected candidate - i.e. the number of votes more than the figure required to win - are redistributed to other candidates in proportion of the second preference votes of those who voted for the elected candidate. So for example if candidate A requires 100 votes to get selected and receives 150 then 50 votes are distributed to second preference candidates. If half of those who chose candidate A as their first preference chose candidate B as their second preference and ten per cent chose candidate C, then candidate B and candidate C would receive 25 and 5 additional votes respectively. If the required number of candidates has still not been selected after this process then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their second preference votes redistributed in the same way. This process continues until the required number of candidates has been selected.
The European parliament is one of three bodies which make up the legislative and executive branches of the EU along with the Council of the European Union (the Council) and the EU Commission (the Commission).
As the only directly elected body in the EU it can make the claim to be the institution which best represents the views of EU citizens. For the most part it operates in a similar way to the House of Commons with members voting on proposed legislation. However, the "government" of the EU is the Commission, which means the parliament doesn't have the ability to propose new legislation or direct policy.
Another oddity of the parliament is that it exists in three different places in three different countries. MEPs spend the majority of their time in Brussels and it is here they have their personal offices and where committees meet. For 12 four-day periods a year the parliament packs up all its offices and moves to the formal seat of parliament across the border in Strasbourg in order to debate in the chamber. In addition to this, the secretariat of the parliament - the civil service - is across yet another border in the Kirchberg district of Luxembourg. The constant movement from one city to another reportedly costs the EU more than ?200 million a year and has become a bone of contention for many eurosceptic parties.
The EU, if not the parliament directly, has a great deal of influence over our daily lives. The vast majority of legislation which now passes through Westminster is simply the implementation of measures approved on the continent, with some estimates suggesting up to 75 per cent of new laws in Britain come from Europe. As the institution grows in both size and stature its control over British laws grows as well.
Legislation in many areas supersedes that of national governments and requires member states to amend their laws accordingly. Key areas of influence include agriculture, the environment, energy, immigration and border control, culture, employment and civil liberties but control exercised by the EU extends into many other areas. The level of influence varies from country to country depending on the concessions or opt-outs national governments have negotiated when signing treaties.
Financially the UK is a net contributor to the EU. As the second largest economy of all member states we pay in more than we receive with some estimates putting the cost as high as £40 million a day.
In order to vote in the elections you must be registered. You have to have registered before May 19 in order to be eligible to vote in the European elections on June 4. Many people will be registered already through the annual canvass done by local governments where they send a form to households and you return it with the details of all eligible voters. If you haven't completed that form or you have moved house since last registering you may need to register with your local authority. Unfortunately there is no searchable database of the electoral register so if you are unsure whether you're registered or not you will have contact your local Electoral Registration Office. Details on local offices and how to register for a postal or proxy vote can be found here along with a complete account of eligibility and requirements to vote.
Registered voters will receive their poll card in the post before the election which contains details on when and where you can vote. If you are voting in person then you will have to attend your allocated polling station on June 4, the opening hours of which will be from 7am-10pm. Outside the station there may be some people asking details and voting intentions called tellers. They're not directly involved with the election but represent parties and are gathering poll information so they can get an indication of how the voting is going. You don't have to provide them with information if you don't want to as they're not election officials.
Inside the station you simply have to provide polling officials with your name and address and they will provide you with a ballot paper and direct you to a booth. In some areas you may be given more than one paper as there are local government elections occurring on the same day.
Once in the voting booth make sure to read the instructions on the ballot paper carefully before casting your vote. In Britain this will involve placing an 'X' in the allocated space next to the party you wish to vote for. You will only have one vote so make sure you only make one clear mark and ensure it's very clear as unclear votes will be registered as spoilt papers and your vote will not count.
In Northern Ireland the ballot paper will be slightly different. Instead of parties it will have the names of the individual candidates. Unlike the rest of Britain you can vote for as many or as few candidates as you choose. In the allocated space beside each candidate place a digit indicating your order of preference. So against your favoured candidate place a '1', your second favourite a '2' and so on for as many as you want. Again, make sure each choice is marked clearly or it may affect the chances your vote will count towards your preferred candidates. As long as the number '1' is clearly marked against a single candidate your vote will be valid.