What's at stake in the European Parliament election that concludes Sunday

People walk past elections posters for the European elections in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, June 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — Nearly 400 million European Union citizens have been going to polls this week to elect members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, in one of the biggest global democratic events.

Far-right parties are seeking to gain more power amid a rise in the cost of living and farmers’ discontent, while the wars in Gaza and Ukraine stay on the minds of voters.

One of the biggest questions is whether European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will remain in charge as the public face of the EU.

Here is a look at the election and the biggest issues at stake:

WHEN IS THE VOTE?EU elections are held every five years across the 27-member bloc. This year marks the 10th parliamentary election since the first polls in 1979, and the first after Brexit.

The elections started Thursday in the Netherlands and finish on Sunday, when most countries hold their election. Initial results can only be revealed in the evening after polling stations have closed in all member states.

HOW DOES VOTING WORK?The voting is done by direct universal suffrage in a single ballot.

The number of members elected in each country depends on the size of the population. It ranges from six for Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus to 96 for Germany. In 2019, Europeans elected 751 lawmakers. Following the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU in 2020, the number of MEPs fell to 705 with some of the 73 seats previously held by British MEPs redistributed to other member states.

After the election, the European Parliament will have 15 additional members, bringing the total to 720. Twelve countries will get extra MEPs.

National political parties contest elections, but once they are elected, most of the lawmakers then join transnational political groups.

WHO IS VOTING?The minimum voting age is 18 in most member states. Belgium lowered it to 16 in a law adopted in 2022. Germany, Malta and Austria are also permitting 16-year-olds to vote. In Greece, the youngest voting age is 17.

A minimum age is also required for candidates to stand for election — from 18 in most countries to 25 in Italy and Greece.

WHAT ABOUT TURNOUT?European Union elections usually don’t bring a huge turnout, but there was a clear upturn in public interest in the 2019 election. At 50.7%, the turnout was eight points higher than in 2014 after steadily falling since 1979, when it reached 62%.

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.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN ISSUES?Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is at the forefront of citizens’ minds, with defense and security seen as key campaign issues. At the national level, the EU’s defense and security was mentioned first in nine countries.

The economy, jobs, poverty and social exclusion, public health, climate change and the future of Europe are also featuring prominently as issues.

WHAT DO EU LAWMAKERS DO?The European Parliament is the only EU institution to be elected by European citizens. It’s a real counterpower to the powerful EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.

The parliament doesn’t have the initiative to propose legislation, but its powers are expanding. It is now competent on a wide range of topics, voting on laws relating to climate, banking rules, agriculture, fisheries, security or justice. The legislature also votes on the EU budget, which is crucial to the implementation of European policies, including, for instance, aid delivered to Ukraine.

Lawmakers are also a key element of the check and balances system since they need to approve the nomination of all EU commissioners, who are the equivalent of ministers. It can also force the whole commission to resign with a vote of a two-third majority.

WHAT’S THE CURRENT MAKEUP OF THE PARLIAMENT?With 176 seats out of 705 as of the end of the last plenary session in April, the center-right European People’s Party is the largest political group in the European Parliament.

Von der Leyen is from the EPP and hopes to remain at the helm of the EU’s executive arm after the election.

The second-largest group is the S&D, the political group of the center-left Party of European Socialists, which currently holds 139 seats. The pro-business liberal and pro-European Renew group holds 102 seats ahead of an alliance made up of green and regionalist political parties that holds 72 seats.

FAR RIGHT LOOKS TO MAKE GAINSTwo groups with far-right parties, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID), could be headed to becoming the third- and fourth-largest political groups at the European Parliament. The two groups have many divergences and it’s unclear to what extent they could team up to affect the EU’s agenda, especially the EU’s efforts to support Ukraine against Russia in the war.

The EPP and S&D are expected to remain stable. Pro-business liberals and greens could both take a hit after they made big gains at the previous election.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE ELECTION?Once the weight of each political force is determined, MEPs will elect their president at the first plenary session, from July 16-19. Then, most likely in September after weeks of negotiations, they will nominate the president of the European Commission, following a proposal made by the member states.

In 2019, von der Leyen won a narrow majority (383 votes in favor, 327 against, 22 abstentions) to become the first woman to head the institution. Parliamentarians will also hear from the European commissioners before approving them in a single vote.

Von der Leyen has good chances to be appointed for another term, but she needs to secure the support of enough leaders. She has also antagonized many lawmakers by suggesting she could work with the hard right depending on the outcome of the elections.