The decision to establish direct elections to the European Parliament was intended by many to establish a direct link between the individual citizen and decision making at the European level. Elections were meant to help to establish a common identity among the peoples of Europe, to legitimise policy through the normal electoral processes and provide a public space within which Europeans could exert a more direct control over their collective future. Critics disagreed, arguing that direct elections to the European Parliament would further undermine the sovereignty of member states, and may not deliver on the promise that so many were making on behalf of that process. In particular, some wondered whether elections alone could mobilise European publics to take a much greater interest in European matters, with the possibility of European elections being contested simply on national matters. Evaluating these divergent views, the subject of this article is to review the literature on direct elections to the European Parliament in the context of the role these elections play in governance of the European Union. The seminal work by Reif and Schmitt serves as the starting point of our review. These authors were the first to discuss elections to the European Parliament as second-order national elections. Results of second-order elections are influenced not only by second-order factors, but also by the situation in the first-order arena at the time of the second-order election. In the 30 years and six more sets of European Parliament elections since the publication of their work, the concept has become the dominant one in any academic discussion of European elections. In this article we review that work in order to assess the continuing value of the second-order national election concept today, and to consider some of the more fruitful areas for research which might build on the advance made by Reif and Schmitt. While the concept has proven useful in studies of a range of elections beyond just those for the European Parliament, including those for regional and local assemblies as well as referendums, this review will concentrate solely on EP elections. Concluding that Reif and Schmitt’s characterisation remains broadly valid today, the article allows that while this does not mean there is necessarily a democratic deficit within the EU, there may be changes that could be made to encourage a more effective electoral process.