17-May-24 Europe

Protest votes, the European way

Elections to the European Parliament are getting close. A quick overview on how they work and why it matters, even if the immediate market impact is likely to be limited.

With less than one month to go until the elections to the European Parliament (EP), one might think that this would be a hot topic in financial markets. They are not, and rightly so, in our view. This is explicable by how these particular elections work, and how the EP fits into European policymaking.

Starting with the elections themselves. On June 6-9 voters will cast their ballots in 27 member states of the European Union (EU). Voters residing outside their home country can decide whether to register to vote in their host country or back home. But only the savvy few tend know just how much of a difference this decision makes in how much their vote will count. Take a look at our Chart of the Week, which shows the resident population per Member to the EP (MEP) in the various member states.


A different way to look at Europe’s electoral landscape


Sources: Eurostat, DWS Investment GmbH as of 01/01/24

As we explained at length back in 2019, last time Europe voted, one under-appreciated aspect of elections to the (EP) is that they take place via national lists.[1] While all countries are using (various versions of) proportional representation, the details vary quite a bit between member states. For example, in small countries such as Malta and Luxembourg, one MEP typically represents around 100,000 residents. This compares to more than 840,000 residents per MEP for France and 880,000 for Germany.[2]

In reality, votes to the EP tend to be 27 largely uncorrelated national elections in the various member states. Specifically, they tend to be low-turn out protest votes against whichever parties are in power at the national level. But because power within the 27 is so split between different – usually coalition – governments at the national level (often including right-wing or far-right parties, or even led by them) these protest votes tend to cancel each other out at the European level, as do last minute changes in how political winds are blowing nationally. 

Polling quality also varies widely across (and within) EU countries. Most seat projections at the European level tend to be based on national polling.[3] However, voters in some countries, such as Estonia, tend to differentiate very sharply depending on the rare occasions when pollsters ask them about their voting intentions specifically for the EP, partly because European elections there strongly center on each party’s lead candidate.[4] All of which means that while there can be big national level surprises, results for the EP as a whole tend to be predictably boring. They can still bring big changes for particular sectors or segments, but mainly through the interplay of European and national politics. For example, the election outcome will help determine the composition of the European Commission. The next EP is likely to be more skeptical on the current Commission’s European climate transformation agenda.

This has potential implications for areas such as European power and carbon prices. How large these will be, though, will also critically depend in how the elections influences politics at the national level, notably for the longevity of Germany’s unloved coalition government and the position of Emmanuel Macron in French policy making. In most policy areas, the EP's influence is now on an equal footing with the European Council (consisting of each member state's head of government).[5]But as far as elections to it are concerned, one of its main channels of influence is how polling surprises within each member state will influence national politics well beyond June 2024.


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1. See, in particular, DWS CIO View Macro Perspectives, “Another Populist shock in Europe”, published March 12, 2019 and DWS CIO View Macro Perspectives, “A giant stirs”, published May 2, 2019

2. To make a correct seat forecast, say for MEPs from Austria and Germany, you would thus need to know not just what EU residents in those two countries think, but also how many of the 217,00 Germans living there will vote in Austria, rather than back home. Demography and migration europe - German Federal Statistical Office (destatis.de)

3. See, for example, POLITICO Poll of Polls — European Election polls, trends and election news – POLITICO

4. This is partly due to the fact that European elections in Estonia traditionally focus heavily on the leading candidate of each party and independent candidates also sometimes have a chance. Compare, for example, results from the same polling firm depending on whether it asks Estonians about voting intentions for the European, rather than national elections: Kantar Emor ratings: Changes in Tallinn have led to support drop for SDE, Isamaa | News | ERR and Ansip's resignation increased Paet's support and Reform holds on to two mandates, both published April 19, 2024. The best publicly available online source we know that takes into account such nuances is Europe Elects, which publishes seat projections as well as commentary each month: Home - Europe Elects, published May 3, 2024

5. To adopt or amend European Union (EU) legislation, the final wording generally has to be approved by both the EP and the Council, though legislation can only be proposed by the European Commission. See, for example, The European Parliament: Powers | Fact Sheets on the European Union | European Parliament (europa.eu)

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