Elections to a strengthened European Parliament in May will see voters from all 28 EU countries choose politicians to represent them for the next five years.
New powers handed to the Parliament in 2009 should make this spring’s elections the most engaging since direct elections to the assembly began in 1979, the EP and EC say, though reformers still believe there is a long way to go before the democratic deficits in European institutions are addressed.
However, a positive shift in the EU’s balance of power towards the Parliament means that one of the first tasks of newly-elected MEPs will be to vote in the next president of the European Commission.
The new system, set out in the Lisbon Treaty, requires the EU's heads of state and government to nominate a candidate based on the election results. This means the Parliament will also have greater influence on the selection of Commissioners.
A related change in May’s elections is that this will be the first time that political groups will put forward candidates for the post of Commission president.
The centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) has already selected the German MEP Martin Schulz – the current president of the Parliament – as their official candidate for the post.
The centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) will choose next month between the Finnish EU Commissioner Olli Rehn and the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
Meanwhile, around half a dozen candidates – including four current and former prime ministers – are in the running to become the centre-right European People’s Party’s (EPP) choice, with the decision expected in March.
The Greens are choosing their candidate, from a shortlist of four, through a pioneering online primary designed to involve grassroots opinion through digital democracy.
It is hoped that, overall, the changes will help generate greater interest in the elections and reverse a trend of low voter turnout, which fell to just 43 per cent of the electorate in 2009.
A Europe-wide public opinion survey last year found that 62 per cent of those questioned think that having party-affiliated candidates for Commission president, as well as holding elections on the same day throughout Europe, would increase turnout.
There remains a concern that xenophobic and anti-Europe parties will continue to take advantage of lack of understanding, engagement and concern among publics in some countries, including the United Kingdom.