There may be many factors that have driven falling turnout at European Parliamentary elections over the years, but much of this may stem from the expansion of the Union itself.

As time has passed and the EU has grown in size, European Parliamentary (EP) elections have seen a continual decline in turnout since the first direct elections took place in 1979. While turnout in that first election was around 62%, it had fallen to 43% by 2009.

In an attempt to understand and reverse this trend, the EP has studied the profile of voters as well as their reasoning behind not voting. Measures such as better information to connect voters to the EP through national political parties, same-day voting and making the election of a European Commission president more inclusive have been put forward. However, this may not be enough to halt the trend in light of the EU enlargement process, as the expansion of the EU may be bringing in structural factors that impact election turnout across the EU.

Two weeks ago the EU marked the tenth anniversary of its ‘big bang’ enlargement, which increased membership from 15 to 25 member states. Concerns were raised at the time as to how the inner workings of the EU might be affected, with much attention drawn to the differences between older and newer members.

Members differ now much as they did a decade ago, from the profile of their economies to demographics, culture, history and identity. One key difference that has escaped much of the scrutiny surrounding enlargement has been the variation in voting habits of EU citizens, yet with the forthcoming European Parliament (EP) elections this may have an important role in bringing the question of the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ to the fore. If a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate votes in European elections, the weaker the direct control of EU citizens over their collective parliament becomes. Therefore democracy in the EU could be undermined by a further fall in turnout.

Looking at the turnout figures it appears that those members that have joined more recently have less of a propensity towards political participation than those who joined earlier. The chart below shows the impact of members that have joined since the first direct EP elections in 1979. While the bars detailing the total average turnout demonstrate a clear decline in both national and EP elections, the spikes within these bars represent a less significant decline among the original nine voting members. Excluding newer members thus reveals a higher average turnout in both national and EP elections, and though turnout has still fallen it has done so at a slower pace.

The difference is quite stark, with a 15 and 7 percentage point drop in EP and national elections respectively across all members, compared with a 5 point drop for both among the original nine.

Turnout in national and EP elections – comparisons between all members and original nine members, 1989-2009

EU Turnout

For this reason the recent fall in turnout appears to be driven, in part, by the enlargement process itself. Newer members show poorer turnout than those who joined the EU earlier, this being particularly true of countries that have joined since 2000 (registered turnouts have been 20% or less in some cases). While it is also true that EP election turnout has fallen among original members since 1979, it appears to have largely stabilised over the past few elections and even increased slightly.

There are a number of reasons why people don’t vote. They may be too busy, uninterested, uninformed or, as many Euro-sceptics identify as a cause of falling turnout, they may feel that it is simply not in their interest. Yet it appears that reasons for not voting seem similar across all EU countries, including recent joiners as compared to original members, high turnout countries and low. The table below shows the reasons given by non-voters from Italy (a high turnout country) and Slovakia (a low turnout country), showing similarities that are broadly typical of non-voters EU-wide.

Reasons cited by non-voters in Italy and Slovakia, 2009

EU survey(Click to see larger Image)

Post-2009 efforts by the European Commission to identify the root causes of low turnout are therefore tricky, as broad homogeneity in reasons provided by non-voters potentially conceals important differences between the electorates of member states. This makes it difficult to target non-voter citizens of more recent members, as without an adequate understanding of the causes of abstention it is difficult to plan for a solution. Latvia and Slovakia represent two recent members who have diverged in terms of EP turnout despite having similar turnouts over the course of their previous three national elections. Understanding the reasons for such a divergence and finding a solution to the turnout problem may be crucial, as further falls could provide fuel to Euro-sceptics and strengthen the resolve of anti-EU parties across the continent.

EP and national election turnout in Latvia and Slovakia
Latvia and Slovakia turnout

Source: IDEA

Further enlargement could play a significant role in pushing in either direction. Along with Latvia and Slovakia, two countries negotiating for membership, Serbia and FYR Macedonia, have largely comparable turnouts across their last three national elections (roughly around 60%). While the relatively small electorates of Serbia and FYR Macedonia mean that they are unlikely to significantly affect EU turnout, the way that they and other potential new members vote may say a lot about the future of democratic participation in Europe.

The second part of this post discusses the perceived advantage of voting at national and EU level and how this may impact turnout.

Author: Steven Ayres