European Elections

European Parliament elections took place between June 4-7, and Belgium voted on Sunday. Over the course of the day, we covered events at polling stations and at the Parliament building. The EU is a bit complex, but I’ll provide a quick explanation at the end of this post if anyone is interested.

Journalists, EU workers and others walk through a hallway in the European Parliament in Brussels. Despite extensive advertising, turnout throughout Europe was only around 43%. Over 700 Members of European Parliament were elected, so there was no single political star drawing voters to the polls.

A father lets his son insert his voting card at a polling station in suburban Brussels. Though turnout throughout Europe was only 43%, Belgian turnout was around 90%. Belgians tend to be in favor of the EU, but the high turnout is mostly due to voting being mandatory in Belgium.

Former Belgian Prime Minister (1992-1999) and current Member of European Parliament Jean-Luc Dehaene waits in line at his polling station in northern Brussels. Though he served as head of state, Dehaene waited in line as if he were any other citizen. There were a couple police officers outside, but his only entourage in the polling station was a group of journalists and his wife. Dehaene said he hoped the elections would bring about a stronger Europe needed to combat economic and environmental problems.
Journalists seemed to rule the European Parliament building on Sunday, setting up TV studios, computer camps and editing booths throughout the building. Sunday was the final day of elections, and hoards of journalists were on hand to interview politicians throughout the day.

A journalist from a Flemish TV station interviews Wilfried Martens, the President of the center-right European People’s Party, the most popular party in European Parliament. The EPP will maintain its hold on Parliament as it received 265 of the 736 seats in the proportionally-elected body. Martens also served as the Belgian Prime Minister from 1981-1992.

As for the EU, the Parliament is one of three branches of the government and the only one that is popularly elected. The other branches are the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. The Commission is basically the bureaucracy, but there are also 27 main Commissioners chosen by the heads of state of EU member nations. There is one Commissioner per nation, but they are required to represent the interests of Europe as a whole, not of their respective countries.
The Council of Ministers is comprised of 27 officials, one from each member nation, and is a legislative chamber. The Council shares power with the Parliament in enacting laws. For difficult decisions, the Council defers to heads of state, who meet four times each year during the EU summit. The ministers represent the interests of their independent nations.
The Parliament is the popularly elected branch which shares decision-making power with the Council. Members hold office for five-year terms. The Parliament holds committee meetings and performs most of its daily functions in Brussels, but also meets once a month in Strasbourg to make decisions as a unitary body.
The EU in general is a supra-national government, meaning it has real legal authority over its individual member nations. Though many decisions are left to national and regional governments, the EU decides many economic and political policies that affect each nation. If any member nation fails to comply with an EU law, the Commission may bring the nation before the European Court of Justice where it may receive financial penalties. The EU, in many ways, is similar to a “United States of Europe.” Each nation is like a state, and the EU is like the US federal government. There is even a common currency and free travel between nations.
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