The EU and the European elections explained simply!

Learn more about the EU member states, key institutions, current parliamentary majorities, recent voter turnout, and the history of the EU.


27 EU Member States

27 EU Member States

Europe in Figures

  • 27 EU Member States

  • The next European election will be the 10th direct election to the European Parliament.

  • The European elections take place every 5 years.

  • Date of the next European election: June 6–9, 2024

  • 7 political groups

  • 1 EP President

  • 14 EP Vice-Presidents

  • 720 MEPs in the next European Parliament

  • Voter turnout in the 2019 European elections: 51%

  • Voting age: 16 in Belgium, Germany, Malta, Austria; 17 in Greece; 18 all other EU Member States

  • Compulsory voting in Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Luxembourg

Key EU institutions

European Parliament (EP) is elected by the EU citizens and adopts EU legislation together with the Council of the EU.

European Commission consists of 26 Commissioners and 1 Commission President. As the executive branch of the EU’s political system, it enforces EU treaties, represents the common interests of the EU, and proposes EU laws.

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European Council consists of the Heads of State and Government of the 27 EU Member States and defines the EU’s general political priorities. The following European political parties are currently represented on the European Council: European People’s Party/EPP (9), Democrats for Europe/ALDE (6), Party of European Socialists/PES (5), European Conservatives and Reformists/ECR (3), Independents (4). (As at: November 2023)

Council of the European Union represents the views of national governments and negotiates European legislation. Comprised of the ministers of the Member States, the Council meets in ten different Council configurations.

European External Action Service is the diplomatic service of the EU.

European Central Bank is the central bank of those EU countries that use the euro as their currency.

Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) monitors the application of EU law.

European Court of Auditors audits revenue and expenditure in all EU policy areas, thus fostering accountability and transparency.

Committee of the Regions represents local and regional authorities throughout the EU, issuing opinions on new legislation.

European Economic and Social Committee represents employee and employer organizations and other stakeholders. It submits opinions on EU issues to EU institutions, thus forming a bridge between decision-making bodies and citizens.

Die wichtigsten EU- Institutionen

Majorities in the European Parliament (EP)

The EP currently has 705 seats, which are distributed among the 27 EU Member States according to their population size, ranging from 96 seats for Germany to six seats for Malta. Following the EP elections, MEPs are grouped not by country but by political group.

There are currently seven political groups in the EP:

  • The Left GUE/NGL (37 seats),
  • Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, 140 seats),
  • Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA, 72 seats),
  • Renew Europe (102 seats),
  • European People’s Party (EPP, 178 seats),
  • European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, 68 seats),
  • Identity and Democracy (ID, 59 seats), and
  • 49 independent MEPs.

Voter turnout in the European elections from 1979 to 2019

Voter turnout in the European elections from 1979 to 2019

What happens after the European elections?

  1. The parliamentary groups are formed.

  2. The European Parliament elects its President.

  3. The European Council proposes a President of the European Commission, taking into account the results of the European elections.

  4. The European Parliament votes on the proposed President of the European Commission. If the candidate is rejected, the European Council must submit a new proposal within one month.

  5. If approved, the elected President asks the Member States to submit their nominations for Commissioners, with each Member State proposing its own candidate (currently 26 Commissioners).

  6. Candidates are confirmed by the Committees of the European Parliament after confirmation hearings.

  7. The European Parliament votes to approve the entire proposed European Commission.

Timeline of EU history

1951: Six founding Member States (Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) establish the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

1957: The Treaty of Rome creates the basis for a European Economic Community (EEC), European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), and common institutions such as a parliamentary assembly, a court of justice, and an economic and social committee. The term “European Communities” (EC) comes into use.

1967: The executive bodies of the three Communities (ECSC, EEC, and Euratom) merge.

1973: The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark join the EC.

1974: The Heads of State and Government of the EC decide to meet regularly as the European Council.

1979: The European Parliament is directly elected for the first time.

1981: Greece joins the EC.

1985: The Commission presents its White Paper on Completing the Internal Market. The Schengen Agreement, including a gradual abolition of border controls at internal borders, is adopted by Germany, France, and the Benelux countries.

1986: Portugal and Spain join the EC.

1987: The 12 Member States sign the Single European Act to enable the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital (the “four freedoms”) and create a single European market by 1992.

1989: Peaceful revolutions take place in Central and Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain falls.

1993: The Treaty of Maastricht establishes the European Union as we know it today. According to the Treaty, the EU is based on three pillars: the European Communities, Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Common Justice and Home Affairs. The conditions and timetable for introducing an economic and monetary union are also defined.

1994: The Committee of the Regions is constituted. The Schengen Agreement enters into force.

1995: The EU grows to 15 Member States (adding Austria, Finland, and Sweden).

1997: The EU foreign ministers sign the Treaty of Amsterdam, which comes into force in 1999.

1999: The euro is introduced as an electronic currency in the eurozone. The Treaty of Amsterdam comes into force, providing the key prerequisites for enlargement of the EU. The Treaty strengthens the European Parliament and the EU’s ability to act externally, appointing a High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Turkey becomes a candidate for EU membership. A convention to draft the European Charter of Fundamental Rights begins its work.

2000: In Nice, the Heads of State and Government agree on a new treaty (Nice Treaty) to prepare the EU’s decision-making system for enlargement. It enters into force in 2003.

2001: At the Laeken Summit, the European Council decides on a comprehensive reform of the EU and the establishment of a Convention on the Future of the European Union.

2002: The euro becomes legal tender. The European Council in Copenhagen decides to admit ten Eastern and Central European states and develops the Copenhagen accession criteria.

2003: The Convention on the Future of the EU completes its draft of a European Constitution. The Intergovernmental Conference begins drafting a constitutional treaty and agrees to establish an area of freedom, security, and justice.

2004: Ten countries join the EU: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Cyprus.

2005: The endeavor to introduce a European constitution falls flat after failed referendums in France and the Netherlands. North Macedonia becomes a candidate for EU membership.

2007: Bulgaria and Romania join the EU. Following the failure of the Constitutional Treaty, the 27 EU states instead sign the Treaty of Lisbon, which amends the previous treaties.

2009: The Treaty of Lisbon enters into force to facilitate more democratic and efficient decision-making processes, for example by affording greater powers to the EU Parliament and introducing the European Citizens’ Initiative.

2010: Montenegro becomes a candidate for EU membership.

2012: Serbia becomes a candidate for EU membership.

2013: Croatia becomes the 28th EU Member State.

2014: Albania becomes a candidate for EU membership.

2016: The United Kingdom votes to leave the EU in a referendum (Brexit).

2020: The United Kingdom leaves the European Union, which is thereafter referred to as the EU27.

2022 and 2023: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia become EU accession candidates.


Democracy in the EU – an index

Democratic deficits in EU Member States are becoming increasingly severe. Defending the EU as a democratic project will be one of the major political efforts in the years ahead. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reveals which EU Member States suffer from democratic deficits.

The ranking of EU countries shown here is based on the 2022 report by the EIU. The first figure is each country’s global rank, while the figure in brackets is its democracy score on a scale of 1 to 10. The higher the score, the more “democratic” the country.

The score is made up of the following five categories: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.

Based on the results for a number of indicators within these categories, each country is assigned to one of four types of regimes: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes.

Map of Europe with a Democracy Score

Melanie Bernhofer is Program Manager for Climate, Trade, and Agricultural Policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s EU Office.

Joan Lanfranco is Head of Communications and Public Relations at the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s EU Office.

This article is licensed under Creative Commons License