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More than 400m EU citizens can vote in May to elect a new European Parliament, the bloc’s only directly elected institution, and shape the future of the EU.

The elections are likely to be the most consequential in a generation.

The mainstream centre-left and centre-right will probably lose their joint control of the legislature for the first time in 25 years. The socialists are in disarray in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, while moderate conservatives are being squeezed by Eurosceptics and the far-right across the EU following years of austerity and a backlash over immigration. Anti-establishment and nationalist parties, which surged into first place in some countries in 2014, are expected to make further gains, particularly in Italy, Germany and Spain — and could disrupt the way the EU works if they can find a way to work together. Centrist pro-Europeans, led by France’s Emmanuel Macron, are seeking to play a bigger role.

Illustration ballot box with EU flag

The UK’s delay of Brexit further complicates the process of coalition-forming in the European Parliament. Its 73 seats will be vacated once the divorce with the EU is complete.

All 28 member states will vote between May 23 and 26.

Here the FT explains how the European Parliament election works and what is at stake.

If you would like to know more, tap or click on — they provide extra context.

When you tap or click on the word, you will see a short explanation.

What are the elections for?

The elections bring in members of parliament (MEPs) who fulfill the European Parliament’s three main duties:

  • Pass EU laws
  • Supervise the European Commission
  • Oversee the EU’s €145bn annual budget

MEPs will also decide, together with the EU member governments, who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the .

Until the UK completes its delayed exit from the bloc, the parliament’s 751 seats will continue to be allocated as they were in the 2014-2019 parliamentary term.

However, once Brexit becomes effective, the UK’s MEPs will leave and the parliament will shrink to 705 seats. Of the UK’s 73 seats, 27 will be re-allocated to 14 countries that were previously , including France, Italy and Spain. The remaining 46 seats will be held in reserve for new countries that may join the EU in the future.

How the re-allocated seats will be filled will depend on national legislation in each of the affected member states and the type of proportional representation system they use.

Chart showing redistribution of UK seats in European parliament, excluding countries with no seat change
After Brexit, UK will lose its 73 seats in the EP
Some will be dropped and some – reallocated to other countries
Seats legend key

Who’s in it?

The European Parliament is unique in that national political parties organise themselves into pan-European , roughly along ideological lines, which work with each other to pass legislation.

The EP has eight political groups, ranging from mainstream centre-right and centre-left forces to anti-EU

The European parliament’s rules require a group to have at least 25 MEPs from at least seven member states. Groups qualify for parliamentary funds, committee jobs and the right to handle policy files. Some chose to put forward candidates for the commission presidency, a Spitzenkandidat, in the elections.

Who are the Spitzenkandidaten?

Illustrations of the Spitzenkandidaten
Jan Zahradil (ECR), Frans Timmermans (S&D), Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout (European Greens), Manfred Weber (EPP)

The Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, system was first tried out in 2014 and propelled Mr Juncker to the EU’s top job. Rather than leave the choice of commission president to EU leaders after the election, it involves the big pan-European political groups each picking a top candidate before the vote.

The eventual winner must convince a of the heads of EU national governments, the European Council, to nominate them for the commission post, a decision which is far from automatic. The nominee will then need to command support from newly elected MEPs, essentially by building a coalition of supportive groups. Here is the list of all known candidates so far.

The 2019 election, however, will probably be trickier than the 2014 debut. Some vested interests that supported the process four years ago are weaker. The mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties who most vociferously promoted the process — and divvied up top jobs between themselves — are unlikely to command a majority in the parliament. Building a coalition in the next parliament will potentially be harder, and the parliament may not be as united in insisting on a Spitzenkandidat.

What’s at stake?

In short, the elections will help set the future direction of the EU and the laws that govern the bloc. And they come at a critical time.

Brexit has spurred nationalist, anti-EU groups across Europe, many of whom see the elections as a referendum on the EU’s survival. There are deepening divisions in the bloc between east and west, north and south. And the EU is still dealing with the fallout from the 2015 migration crisis and the subsequent

Illustration of the EU flag being pulled from two sides

Major campaign issues range from spending, climate change and labour rights, to immigration, refugees and rule of law.

What do the polls say?

The centre-right and centre-left are projected to remain the largest groups in parliament, but are expected to lose the combined majority they’ve held since the parliament’s inception.

Polls suggest that the far-right will boost its numbers — probably not enough to bring the institution to its knees, but it could be enough to .

French president Emmanuel Macron is eager to reach a wider European audience in the hope of limiting the presence of right-wing nationalists in the next European Parliament. However recent opinion polls in France show that Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party is being beaten by a narrow margin by the far-right Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen.

2019 projected seats2019 projected
Total 751 Live
Current seatsCurrent
Total 751

Read our methodology . For better insight into individual country polls, visit FT's polls-tracking page.

What about turnout?

Turnout in European elections has historically been low, far lower than most national elections. In the 2014 elections, only 42.6 percent of all eligible voters cast their votes.

Chart showing how turnout in European parliament elections has fallen by nearly at third since 1979

In a report last year, the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, attributed falling turnout to a broad erosion of trust in institutions and said that protest votes are becoming more common. “Liberal democracies have less legitimacy than at any time since World War II,” the report said.

Another explanation, according to the Journal of European Integration, is that the public simply does not care as much about the European elections. “The stakes are lower,” wrote Nicholas Clark, who authored the study, in an email to the FT. “National governments hold much of the power, the European Parliament does not.” Mr Clark added: “Many voters simply do not know what the EP does and therefore do not find as much reason to vote.”

What do you want to know about the European elections? The FT is keen to answer your queries. Share your questions in the comments below.

Illustrations: Sarah Tanat-Jones

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