European Parliament elections 2019. What can the EU do to try and increase voter turnout for 2019?

Term Paper 2018 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Western Europe


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. EP, Democratic deficit and Euroscepticism

3. Past election
3.1. Party and electoral system
3.2. Low turnout

4. Future Election 2019 - Factors for a low voter turnout

5. Suggestions: What can the EU do?

6. Conclusions

7. Bibliography:

1. Introduction

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the low voter turnout at the European Parliament (EP) and its future elections are just around the corner, 2019. The purpose of this paper is to review past EP elections and define proposals, which could allow the European Union (EU) to fight abstention, and to give an opinion about the voter turnout at the next elections.

The first section of this paper will examine the role and development of the EP, discuss the EU democratic deficit and Euroscepticism. It is fundamental to have a background in this field before coming to an analysis of the past elections, parties and Members of the EP (MEP) and to the main discussion of this paper, the proposals the EU could adopt to increase voter turnout and to a personal opinion of future voter turnout.

2. EP, Democratic deficit and Euroscepticism

The EP is the only directly elected international Parliament, this institution has many peculiarities. (Wagner, 2002:24) At the beginning of the EU, the EP was merely an assembly with a consultative role, it was with the Rome Treaty that the first view of a Parliament came out which was finally established in 1979. (Wagner, 2002: 24) The steps of its empowerment are several, the most important are: in 1987 the Single European Act which introduces the co-operation procedure, 1993 the Maastricht Treaty, which introduces the co-decision procedure and the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999 which extend the co-decision procedure. (Wagner, 2002: 25) The last and more important step of empowerment is with the Lisbon Treaty, which set out the co-decision as the normal legislative procedure.

Although there is a directly voted institution in the EU scenario, there is a consensus in the literature and among politicians that international organisation, in this case we consider the EU, are very questionable when it comes to democracy, the one who invokes democratic ideals agree that there is a clear democratic deficit, due to its large geography. (Moravcsik, 2004: 336) Moravicsik analyses the EU and argues that the critic of a democratic deficit is unfounded, since the EU has constitutional and material restrictions on its mandate, inter-institutional checks and balances, indirect democratic control through national governments, and the increasing powers of the EP. (Moravcsik, 2004: 338) However, it does not mean that there are no problems, on the contrary the EU is accused of being technocratic and distant from the citizens. (Moravcsik, 2004: 349)

This represents a good link to the emergence of Euroscepticism and Eurosceptic Parties. Researches categorize Euroscepticism into two different types, hard and soft. The first one represents a principled opposition to the EU and the aim is to withdraw from the membership; the second one represents concerns on one or more policy areas and they want to preserve the national interest. (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2002: 7) The characteristics of Euroscepticism are: universal feature of the party systems of MS; soft Euroscepticism is more common; hard Euroscepticism is nowhere a central party in the government; although the public opinion can be highly Eurosceptic it is not always reflected in the electoral outcomes; there is no linear correlation between Euroscepticism and right or left parties. (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2002: 32)

Researchers agree that the origins of Euroscepticism lay in the enlargement and empowerment of the EU, since it is more difficult to guarantee the support of a common opinion. (Taggart and Szczerbiak, 2002: 5) Another factor, which led such parties to rise, is the constitutional Treaty failure, when due to referenda in France, Netherlands and Ireland the EU integration project was stopped. (PES)

Parties are here the main actors, they represent Euroscepticism or its opposition. In fact, political manifestos take EU issues as secondary relevant and do not give the right importance to it, so that the public opinion is left without much information and just with the choice between being pro or contra EU, Eurosceptic parties try to take advantage from this situation. (Ladrech, 2007: 10)

3. Past election

The aim of this paragraph is to analyse voter`s behaviours. According to the “second-order” theory, behaviours of voters may change in the EP elections in favour of smaller parties, since they vote less strategically; levels of turnout are lower and EP elections reflect the unhappiness of voter towards the national governments. (Hobolt, 2007: 4) Moreover, studies from Hix and Marsh show that usually big parties tend to loose in the supranational elections, and the outcome of past elections is that governing parties tend to have a worse turnout. (Hobolt, 2007: 4) The result of Euroscepticism may be abstention.

One lack of the political campaign is the information through media, in fact, MEPs are not well known and voters cannot criticise low performance if they are not well aware about what MEPs actually do. (Hobolt, 2007: 22) If there are only low quality candidates it will be very easy that voters use the election only in order to punish their national governments, that is why Hobolt supposes that opposition parties may put more efforts and chose high quality candidates. (Hobolt, 2007: 8) Hobolt argues that parties are more willing to put high-qualified candidates in national elections, where the electoral pay-offs are higher. A practical example which support Hobolt`s theory is when the Danish Social Democrats nominated the former Danish Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen to lead their EP party in 2004, the party’s share of the vote increased by 19 percentage points thanks to the quality of that only candidate. (Hobolt, 2007: 5) Although quality candidates can mobilise voters, it does not mean that they improve quality of the legislative work. (Hobolt, 2007: 3) According to Hobolt the quality of the candidates actually affects the election outcome, they perform better; moreover parties with a clear European “cause” like eurosceptics and greens, perform better at EP elections. (Hobolt, 2007: 20)

3.1. Party and electoral system

It is important to mention that there is no common electoral system. Since every MS votes for the EP according to different constituencies this means there is an implicit electoral threshold, and this could affect the electoral behaviour, they would vote les strategically. (Calossi, 2015: 3) The characteristics of the European electoral system are: the presence of thresholds (implicit or explicit), the choice of sub-national electoral constituencies or the unique national-level district, and the degree of openness of party lists (closed, flexible, or open). (Calossi, 2015: 4)

Concerning the party system, we can notice two main party system since the first EP election in 1979, until 1994 the EP was mainly split into two blocks, left (Socialists, Radical Left and Greens) and right (Populars, Liberals, Gaullists and British Conservatives). After 1994 the system sees three main parties EPP (conservative), PES (socialist) and ELDR (liberal) who face different oppositions, like the eurosceptics or the greens. (European Parliament, 2014)

3.2. Low turnout

From the results of elections published by the EP we can see a permanent decline of the turnout. The highest percentage was at the first election, with 61.99%, while it was 42.61 in the last election of 2014, which represents the lowest result of all eight EP elections since 1979. According to the results of the voter turnout of 2014 the national results are very various, the highest abstention results in Poland 23%, Czech Republic 18% and Slovakia 13%, while the countries with the most affluence are Benelux with 89% and Malta with 74%. (Eurobarometer) The number of voters at the EP elections of 2014 reduced since the election in 2009, some countries like Cyprus and Lithuania lost around 20% of the voters. (European Parliament, 2014)

These numbers show that the abstention in some countries has critical levels.

4. Future Election 2019 - Factors for a low voter turnout

The main problem the EU has to face is the total number of abstention that is dramatically high. In my opinion, in order to solve the main problem of this seemingly democratic deficit, the EU has to target firstly the group of abstainers. According to a survey conducted by the EP, the main reasons for abstention are: lack of trust in/ dissatisfaction with politics generally; not interested in politics as such; vote has no consequences/ vote does not change anything; on holiday/ away from home; too busy/ no time/ work; do not know much about the EU/ EP or the EP elections; rarely or never vote; not interested in European matters; not really satisfied with the European Parliament as an institution; sick/ health problems at the time; opposed to EU; lack of public debate or lack of electoral campaign; did not know there were EP lections. (European Parliament, 2014: 4) While, the main reasons for voting are: have always voted; consider it as a duty of all citizens; to support the political party they feel close. (European Parliament, 2014: 25)

An important problem is that the EP elections are not discussed enough in the media, in fact, 33% of the respondents of a survey do not remember having seen on TV, in the internet or on posters, read in newspapers or heard on the radio a campaign encouraging people to vote. (European Parliament, 2014: 79) The main issue which encourage voters to go to the polls are unemployment, economic growth and immigration. (European Parliament, 2014: 5)

It is important to mention that starting from next election, in 2019 citizens of EU will have the opportunity to vote online, the EP is expecting an increase in voter turnout in a long-term, especially among the younger generations.

5. Suggestions: What can the EU do?

Recommendations to solve the multitude of problems above mentioned, should be multidimensional. It should involve the legal framework in which the EP works, EU reforms and the social aspect. In this view there have been several proposals I want to mention here.

The result of the Laeken European Council of December 2001 is a convention, which allows the EU to make proposals to optimize the Parliament efficiency, transparency and democracy. (The Federal Trust, 2004) The problem is that although the convention debates, discussions and outcomes were accessible by public, only a small group of media is interested in it, the image was that the truly work of the convention was anyway organised behind closed doors and this is the prime reason why the intentions of the Convention mainly failed. (The Federal Trust, 2004) Although the public perception is not positive, it does not mean that the recommendations are not useful. A very important recommendation is to make EU more accessible for citizens, the Council is supposed to appear in public when it comes to new legislations and to make some procedures easier. (The Federal Trust)

The role of the media is fundamental and decisive for the outcome of the voter turnout. Particularly in east countries where the voter turnout is extremely down, like Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the EP elections have not been discussed satisfactory in the media, so the suggestion made by the author is to improve communication. (Fislage, 2015: 17) Since the EU Institutions seems to be so far from the citizen and because of factors abovementioned, like technocracy, second-model, use of EU issues as foreign policy, the role of the media and the parties seems to be fundamental to raise awareness and interest in the populations. This proposal, in fact, concerns the EP elections` role in the media. In this field, an important suggestion to pro-European parties is to concentrate their campaign on concrete topics and not as a media answer to Eurosceptic parties. In a media answer, the voter decides only to be pro o contra Europe, this should not be the aim of the campaign, the normal cleavages should be the classic right v. left, but of course, Eurosceptic parties are not interested in this. (Calossi, 2015: 17) It is a duty of the parties to increase attention towards EU politics, by discussing specific EU topics, otherwise the voter will never be aware about the parties` objectives.

Concerning the election procedure, there are many the EU could reform in order to increase the voter outcome. A very interesting proposal comes from Andrew Duff, British MEP, he proposed a reform of the electoral procedures towards a greater harmonisation, since each MS has different regulations and he even proposed to establish a European election day, this would have a great symbolic benefit. Duff made some proposals to the parties, which are the actors who can really do something to fight abstention, they should introduce the preferential vote, and this would have the consequence of an increased knowledge of MEPs candidates. (Calossi, 2015: 15) In this view was introduced theSpitzenkandidatenprocedure in 2014. The idea is that intraparties procedures can follow the American model by holding primaries in all MS, candidates have campaign in each MS, the participation in early stages of voter could increase the final turnout, the problem at the election of 2014 was that theSpitzenkandidatenprocedure used to elect the Commission President should be the last step of a longer process. (Müller Goméz, 2016) Although, this procedure has been used to elect the President of the Commission in 2014, but the general outcome has been unsatisfactory.

An alternative mentioned by Müller Goméz is that EU citizens vote directly the Commission president, in order to be directly accountable to the EU citizens. (Müller Goméz, 2016)

Another proposal is to introduce additional requirements to be registered as European political parties, and to indicate officially the national parties that are members of the European one, for example by adding a reference on the electoral ballot. (Calossi, 2015: 17)

The pan-European (or trasnational party) lists are the suggestions after Brexit, UK will leave behind 70 seats in the EP, this is why supranational institutions discussed, in September this year, the future composition of the EP, parties like the Greens and the Liberals are pushing for these lists. (Nielsen, 2017)

What about making EU elections compulsory? In countries where voting is compulsory the voter turnout is very high, countries like Belgium and Luxembourg. This could be an easy and very practical way to increase voter turnout and to raise public engagement and interest in EU topic. Although it is important to mention that elections are compulsory even in Greece[1]and Cyprus, but here the voter turnout is on the European average. (EP, 2014) However, here many moral problems rise. Although some scholars argue that it can even prevent electoral corruption, the arguments against are very strong, it violate the principle of liberty and can be considered undemocratic. (Malkopoulou, 2009: 10) so this option, although a very effective method, seems to be unrealistic to implement.

6. Conclusions

This assignment has explained the central problems involved in the EP elections. We considered many factors, EU party system, reasons for abstention, quality of candidates, Euroscepticism. It was also pointed out that the past elections indicated a raise of Eurosceptic parties, a low voter turnout and a generally weak interest towards EU politics.


[1]Compulsory voting in Greece is not enforced. (Birch, 2009 :7)


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Title: European Parliament elections 2019. What can the EU do to try and increase voter turnout for 2019?