Hundreds of millions of voters in all the 27 countries that make up the European Union are heading to polls between June 6 and 9 to choose their representatives in the European Parliament, the only directly elected institution of the alliance.

The European Union is one of the world’s most ambitious political experiments, but because of its complex governing structure, it has often been criticized for a lack of transparency and democratic accountability. The European Parliament election, which takes place every five years, is the only way in which E.U. citizens can have a direct say in shaping the bloc’s policies.

Voters have been electing lawmakers to the body since 1979, when the union was much smaller. This year, there are more than 330 million Europeans who are eligible to choose 720 lawmakers.

The results will affect the bloc’s policies for the next half-decade, but they also provide a rare and important check on the political mood across Europe. They can even trigger political upheaval in individual countries, particularly if a ruling party takes a big beating at the E.U. polls.

In a significant divergence from most European legislatures, the European Parliament does not have the power to initiate laws, which many see as a crucial limitation on its powers.

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