Citizens in the 28 European Union nations will go to the polls this week in an atmosphere of uncertainty — with the specter of Brexit looming over the process and a growing nationalist, euroskeptic movement drawing voter support — to cast ballots for the bloc’s only directly elected body: the European Parliament.
The European government is complex by design, a fact that can perplex voters and vote-watchers alike, often resulting in a low turnout.
But this time is different. Nationalists have gained ground across Europe, and as they head into the elections with a newly united front, the vote is being seen as the latest test of their influence. Polls suggest that populist parties could be positioned to make big gains, winning seats from the centrists who have long dominated Parliament.
Here’s a guide to the European Parliament elections, a notoriously confusing system made even more so by changing dynamics within the bloc.
How does the European Parliament work?
Voters will elect the 751 members of the European Parliament to five-year terms, with the number of seats for each nation determined primarily by its population.
Each country uses a slightly different process, with the uniting requirement that the number of seats won by political parties be roughly proportional to their share of the vote. Member nations must hold their elections no earlier than Thursday and no later than Sunday.
The system is relatively new — the first elections were held just 40 years ago — and it is still evolving.
Once elected, nearly all lawmakers organize into Pan-European groups — there are currently eight — along broad ideological lines. The most powerful group has long been the center-right European People’s Party, a coalition that includes Germany’s governing Christian Democrats and the Republicans, the leading opposition party in France.
The European Parliament approves or rejects legislation, establishes budgets and supervises a variety of institutions within the bloc. It also plays a crucial role in selecting the president of the European Commission; the current president, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, whose term ends later this year, has said he will not be a candidate.
But the Parliament shares decision-making power with several other bodies, including the European Commission, whose members are appointed by national governments; the Council of the European Union, made of government ministers from each country; and the European Council, the heads of governments.
Unsurprisingly, this makes for decision-making that is complicated at best, and made more so by being seen through different regional or ideological lenses.
“There is no single understanding of how the E.U. works,” said Katjana Gattermann, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam who studies perceptions of the European Union. “In the 28 countries, politics are always interpreted a bit differently.”
How is rising nationalism affecting the elections?
While centrist, pro-Europe parties have long dominated the Parliament, a nationalist and populist movement gaining ground across the Continent has begun to make its mark on the European Union.
Matteo Salvini, the powerful leader of the anti-immigrant League party in Italy, announced last month the formation of a new European alliance of populist and far-right parties, providing a formidable threat to the establishment.
Nationalist parties, which at first glance seem incompatible with a transnational body, hope to change the European Union from within, said Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor at the University of Reading in Britain and an expert on nationalism.
Mr. Salvini, who serves as Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, and his allies advocate stronger borders, greater national autonomy and a weaker European Union. The governing parties in Poland and Hungary, though not part of his alliance, have similar views.
Dr. Halikiopoulou said these groups have widened their appeal because their style of nationalism focuses on an “outsider” defined in ideological terms.
“This makes them much more attractive to a broad range of social groups, giving them more political appeal,” she said. “These parties get support now from a broader range of voters. It’s not just the white angry men of the past.”
Gaining power at the European level can help these parties bolster their status at home, Dr. Halikiopoulou said. But their nationalist ideals could leave them unable to form a functioning group within the European Parliament, a necessary step for decision-making power.
“It might in the end be their Achilles heel,” she said, “because it prevents them, by definition, from forging successful alliances at the E.U. level.”
How does Brexit factor in?
Britain was scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, so it did not plan on taking part in this election. But the government’s failure to agree on a withdrawal deal forced it to postpone the departure — requiring participation in the vote.
On Thursday, British voters will have the bizarre experience of electing 73 representatives to an institution that their nation is seeking to divorce.
In local elections this month, voters severely punished the governing Conservative Party for the Brexit gridlock, and they are expected to do it again in the European Parliament contests. Public opinion polls show the Conservatives in fourth place.
The biggest beneficiary is expected to be the new Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, the divisive politician who became one of the loudest voices for the nation’s withdrawal. It could win more than 30 percent of the vote, according to recent polls.
The opposition Labour Party is suffering, too, being punished by many supporters for its failure to fight to remain in the bloc. Firmly pro-Europe parties like the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the newly formed group Change UK are expected to make gains on Thursday.
Once Britain leaves the European Union, its representatives will vacate the European Parliament; 27 seats will be redistributed to the remaining member nations, with the other 46 seats being retired.
Across Europe, surveys show that support for the European Union is higher than ever, and parties that once toyed publicly with following Britain’s lead rarely raise the notion of leaving the bloc.
“The idea of belonging to the E.U. is at its highest support at the moment, and at the same time you see these rising nationalists,” Dr. Halikiopoulou said. “But Brexit has been a deterrent and has shown other countries that the implementation is simply not worth it.”
Why is voter turnout typically so low?
Voter turnout has steadily declined since the first election in 1979, which saw 62 percent of eligible citizens take part. In 2014, 42.6 percent cast ballots, far below the average turnout for national elections across Europe.
This is due, in part, to European elections being widely viewed by voters — and even by the politicians taking part — as less important than national elections.
“From a European perspective, it’s mainly the domestic policies that are seen as mattering,” said Dr. Gattermann, who studies perceptions of the European Union. A lack of understanding about the institution also dampens turnout, she said, even though many policy decisions made at the European Parliament directly affect local policies.
This mentality also helps explain why smaller parties — including some of the rising nationalist groups — can gain ground at the European level while struggling to do so at home. Many citizens also use the European Parliament vote as a protest, believing that the stakes are lower.
“Its also a place for smaller and newer parties, or single-issue parties, to test out the waters in an election,” Dr. Gattermann said.