European Parliament election turnout: What is wrong, what has been done, and what further action could be taken?

Gareth Phelan PhotoThis blog post is the third in a series of posts that come from students of our 2nd year undergraduate “Politics of the EU” course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to EU politics. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of the EU, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.

Across Europe, voter turnout in European Parliament elections has been significantly lower than in national elections. As seen in Fig. 1, voters seem much more inclined to vote in their national level elections as opposed to those on the European level. Our aim is to examine the causes which produced such a phenomenon, before considering the measures introduced by the EU which seemed to encourage voter participation and, finally, what further action could be taken to close the wide gap we see in turnout between European Parliament and national elections.

Gareth Phelan Graph

A central argument which has been put forward to explain low voter turnout in European Parliament elections is that European elections are treated as ‘second-order national elections’ (Reif & Schmitt, 1980; 3-45). This means that national elections are the primary concern, and all other elections are treated as part of the ongoing first-order election process (Hix, 2008; 80). For example, as outlined by Hix (2008; 70), it has been argued that European Parliament elections are not about EU issues or office holders at all, instead being treated as mid-term contests in the national, first-order, electoral cycle. Therefore, voters may be less likely to vote due to the second-order nature of these elections (Franklin & Hobolt, 2011; 68).

Though this ‘second-order’ argument certainly holds truth, the problem may lie in the relationship between the EU and its citizens. There is a gap emerging between the two, caused by growing socio-economic inequalities, a lack of trust, low election turnout itself, and anti-Europeanism (Pausch, 2014; 4-6). However, there are more factors which contribute to this distance between the EU and its citizens. For example, according to Hix (2008; 70), arguments have been made which suggest that the EU is too different from the domestic elected institutions which EU citizens are used to and, because of this, citizens do not understand how the EU works. Surveys conducted in 2000 suggested that 90% of European citizens had heard of the European Parliament, but only around 50%, on average, had regular awareness through media coverage (Cini, 2003; 176). Because of such a gap between the EU and its citizens, voters are surely less likely to vote in European elections.

A third issue which is closely linked to this idea of a growing gap concerns the actual democratic legitimacy of European elections. In the words of Franklin & Hobolt (2011; 69),

A highly salient, highly contested election in a country in which the executive is directly responsible to the legislature is unsurprisingly more likely to bring new voters to the ballot box than a low-salience, second-order election”

European Parliament elections do not fit with the ideal election model mentioned in this quote and, consequently, suffer low turnout. Because the commission, the EU’s executive limb, is not elected directly by voters or indirectly through the European Parliament (Hix, 2008; 71), it is in fact not directly responsible to the legislature. Similarly, European Parliament elections can not satisfy the ‘highly contested’ element of Franklin & Hobolt’s quote since the two largest groups in the parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES), invariably agree to split the presidential office between them into two two-and-a-half year terms (Hix, 2008; 138-9). Therefore, it is clear that European Parliament elections are not highly contested, nor do they result in an executive directly responsible to the legislature. Consequently, they are, according to Franklin & Hobolt’s quote, less likely to bring out voters.

In the more recent stages of its development, the EU has taken steps which theoretically should have strengthened European Parliament election turnout in its member states. Firstly, the European Parliament itself had its powers greatly increased. The Single European Act (1987) gave it two readings of most legislation in the creation of the single market, before the Maastricht Treaty (1993) introduced the ‘co-decision’ procedure which was extended in the Amsterdam Treaty (1999) (Hix, 2008; 34). Such strengthening of influence and power of the European Parliament indirectly gave more strength to the voters who elect it. A second measure which should have increased voter turnout was the introduction of citizenship, established by the Maastricht Treaty. This conferred many rights directly onto EU citizens, including the rights of residence and free movement (Cini, 2003; 399). Again, one would have expected that the granting of benefits directly to EU citizens would have encouraged interest in the EU and, consequently, turnout in European Parliament elections. However, by looking at Fig. 1, we can see that turnout in fact continued to drop following both citizenship introduction and European Parliament strengthening.

How, then, could the EU better manage the election turnout problem? As a first step, national-level social problems could be solved by European-wide measures (Pausch, 2014; 6). This could promote European Parliament elections to first-order status as voter interest would increase. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already expressed such a suggestion by advocating for the introduction of convergence criteria for employment (Der Spiegel, 1997, cited in Pausch, 2014; 7). Measures could also be introduced to reduce the distance between the EU and its citizens. Very simply, greater visibility of EU politicians could make a big difference as voters could see exactly what/who they are voting for. This could be achieved by allowing EU politicians to speak in plenary sessions in the national parliaments, or by allowing commission members to be questioned during the question hours of national parliaments (Pausch, 2014; 7). Finally, in order to address the apparent democratic issue we earlier put forward, the presidential term of the European Parliament could be changed to five years, as opposed to the current two-and-a-half year shared system (Hix, 2008; 141). This would make the elections much more highly contested and democratic, thus encouraging votes.

Clearly, the EU is open to encouraging public participation, as we have seen through citizenship and European Parliament strengthening policies. However, if some more of the proposed measures were to be introduced, perhaps the gap between European and national level election turnout could be reduced.

By Gareth Phelan. Law with Politics student at University College Dublin.


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