The Forty Percent: about the apathy of the European Elections

3 mins read

By Joakim Ydebäck

2019 will be a year of many exciting elections. One of the most important out of all those elections also happen to be the most overlooked. Perhaps not in media, where the elections to the European Parliament are paid moderate attention in the continent. However, the European Elections often fails to gain substantial and considerable public attention. Instead, national or local elections are discussed at a greater level. Not only is it rarely discussed, a majority of European voters do not actively vote in the elections. The failure to generate both attention and involvement to the elections is hurting the legitimacy of the European Union. Will the elections in 2019 be different?

A matter of legitimacy

Elections to the Parliament of the European Union, which at the time was called the European Economic Community, first began in 1979. At the time the Union only encompassed nine member states but has since then evolved to include 28 nations. In fact, close to 400 million European citizens are eligible to cast a vote in 22-25 May 2019. However, very few of these actually do it. In the previous elections in 2014, only 42.61% of European voters actively participated in the process, according to the European Parliament’s own projections, and the voter turnout has decreased in every election since they began. The low voter turnout of the European Elections is a problem because, not only does it question the legitimacy of the Members of the European Parliament, it questions the legitimacy of the European project as a whole.

The Belgian solution

Belgium, the heartland of the European Union, was the first nation to find a solution to this problem. Compulsory voting was introduced to ensure that Belgian citizens would use their democratic rights. The Belgian solution has resulted in Belgium having the by far highest voter turnout in the European Elections in comparison to  all other 28 member states. Luxembourg, another one of the European Union’s official seats, also has a similar system. Perhaps this way of voting is favourable since it guarantees participation in elections. On the other hand, freedom of choice is central to the democratic system and making voting a legal obligation may endanger that. In Belgium, citizens are very rarely prosecuted for their lack of participation. In fact, the prosecutions often only stay on paper and has done so since the 2003 federal election, and the only penalty implemented is a small fine. But the fact remains that Belgian voter turnout has still averaged around 90%. This can be compared to how the voter turnout in most European countries fall around or below 40%.

What to expect in 2019

It is clear that the low voter turnout in the European Elections is a problem. Mainly, it is a problem for the legitimacy of the parliament and thereby the whole European project. Apart from the handful of countries in the EU practising compulsory voting, more efforts have been made during the past few years to draw attention to the elections. In 2014, there was a transnational campaign where the Spitzenkandidaten (that is, the leading candidates for the role of Leader of the European Commission) travelled through the members states to gain public support their candidature. The concept of Spitzenkandidaten seems to be here to stay. In the end, however, these efforts did not help to increase the number of voters.

An hypothesis that has been made by political experts and political commentators is that populist parliamentary candidates and European parties will increase their voting support. This follows a common trend in Europe where national conservative and populist political parties have thrived in national elections. In many cases such political parties have formed part of or is supporting governments in many of the member states. Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, may also have an effect considering the political effects the divorce will have and the decreasing number of MEPs in parliament when the British seats are removed.

New efforts to generate interest and participation are currently in the works for the 2019 elections. A new campaign with the slogan This time I’m voting is trying to educate the voters on why they should involve themselves in European politics. What further decreases of the voter turnout in 2019 will mean for the legitimacy of the European Parliament, and the European Union as a whole, is hard to pinpoint. However, it can be assessed that it is a democratic problem that the most powerful legislative power in Europe, which unifies 28 European member states, does not represent a majority of the Union’s citizens. The tendency appears to be then that certain movements are rewarded by a lower legitimacy while others seem to lose. In the end, the whole European project may lose.

Joakim Ydebäck is studying at the Peace and Development Program at Uppsala University. After that, his goal is to somehow make the world just a little bit better. If he were to be offered the position of foreign minister, he would not say no. His four main interests include talk radio, international opinion polls, political crises and somber jazz music.

Cover photo: Flickr

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