For most people, the European Elections are over and done with. Move on to the next issue. But there is still much to be said about the results and about the elections themselves.
Here in the UK, most of the headlines were about Euro-sceptics winning (in the UK and in France, for example); but there has been little by way of a public debate about the result right across the European Union. In a way, it’s as if most of the other countries aren’t really part of this.
I will look at the results in terms of who won and who lost where in a future post.
Today, I want to look the turnout across the EU.
There is much said about the state of democracy in the world today and not much of it is positive. We talk about democratic deficit in relation to the European Union (and national governments, come to that); we talk about the ‘political class’ having lost touch with ‘the people’.
One way of gauging whether the people have lost touch with politics is to look at how many people bother to go out and vote; because engagement is a two-way process.
So here’s an analysis of voter participation in European Union member States over the period 1979 (when the European Parliament was first directly elected) and 2014.
Some would have us go back to the time when the European Parliament was appointed by national parliaments from among their number.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly is appointed in this way. But there are two real drawbacks: first, there is even less connection between the voters and decision-making at European level; and second, the composition of such a parliament is constantly changing because each time there is a national election in a Member State, their representatives change. This does not make for coherence and continuity in the work the parliament does.
The fact that this system is preferred by UKIP – a party that is fervently anti-EU and whose Members of the European Parliament take the money that comes with the job but don’t engage in any constructive work when they get there – says quite a lot about how effective this system would be at EU level. Not effective at all, in other words.
- Turnout has been consistently decreasing over the 8 direct elections to the European Parliament (between 1979 and 2014)
- Countries with a history of compulsory voting (whether this is currently in force, enforced, or not) have consistently higher turnout than those who don’t
- The Member States at the core of the European Union with a longer history of Membership do better than others
- The ‘new’ Member States (those who joined from 2004 onwards) – with three notable exceptions) are the lowest performers
- The UK – the only Member State to have taken part in all elections since 1979 and never having exceeded 39 per cent turnout – is remarkable in it’s low participation rates
So what is to be done?
It is essential – in my view – that people participate in democracy; voting is only one way of participating but it’s an important and essential way.
So the main focus must be – for governments, for political parties, for schools, for households, for parents – on getting people interested in the process of democracy.
This has to involve education: in schools, colleges, universities and in the media in ways that will engage people with the process rather than with a particular political message. Too many people don’t register to vote, too many people don’t vote even if they are registered.
In the UK – and in other countries that have public service broadcast media at least – there should be engaging and entertaining information about elections and about voting.
Registration needs to be made easier.
Maybe voting should be made compulsory (at least for newer voters, i.e. anyone under a certain age, given that older people are more likely to vote)
Local authorities have to be better at sending out polling cards – in my area many people didn’t get them, me included. And even if you can vote without having one, many people don’t know that and many people end up forgetting that there are elections.
And why is this important? Well, let’s look at the evidence for the system as it is.
Turnout at EU level
Let’s first have a look at the overall picture.
This is the turnout averaged across all Member States at each of the 8 direct elections that have taken place for the European Parliament.
Not all current Member States were involved in all of these and as new Member States joined – and if that happened between elections – those Member States would have had a special election in the year of joining.
But even with these reservations about the figures reflected in this graph, the story it tells is still a fairly straightforward story of decline. Where in 1979 nearly two thirds of voters turned out it is now significantly below half of them. And it has been below half since 1999.
But there are real differences between groups of Member States.
The Top Performers
There are 5 countries that always have a turnout that is much higher than the average. The graph below shows this:
There are some explanations for this: Belgium and Luxembourg have compulsory voting although neither of them enforces this very actively. Nonetheless, voters have a sense that they must go and cast their vote.
Italy used to have compulsory voting and voter participation is dropping consistently since this was ended.
Malta do not have compulsory voting but is a highly politicised country. This is not the place to examine this in detail. However, a is interesting on this subject.
Greece also has compulsory voting, which – like in Belgium and Luxembourg – is not actively enforced. It is interesting to note that turnout dropped consistently until 2009 but in the wake of the serious austerity measures, which Greece has been subjected to, turnout has increased again.
The Broad Middle
Then there are quite a number of Member States that broadly fall into the mid-range of performance. Partly for reasons of easy of reading graphs, I have divided them into older and newer Member States. Older Member States are those that participated in all direct elections; newer ones are those that joined after 1979.
In this group we have three Member States who are founders of the EU (Germany, France and the Netherlands) and two who joined at the same time as the UK (Ireland and Denmark).
With the exception of the Netherlands, their average across all 8 elections is above 45 per cent and although there is some change election on election, the picture is pretty steady with downward trend. The Netherlands is the worst performer in this group in almost election and overall. This reflects an increasing disenchantment with European politics in the Netherlands.
The other group of mid-range performers are Member States that joined after 1979. The picture looks a little different:
Austria, Finland and Sweden all joined in 1995 and their first election was therefore counted as 1994 (they had special votes in 1995); Austria and Finland had quite much higher turnout in that first election than in subsequent ones. Sweden is bucking the downward trend with higher turnout in the last two elections than in any of the previous ones.
Spain joined in 1986 and the first vote which took place that year is counted here as 1984. For Spain, the downturn in voter participation started seriously in 1999, which follows the general trend across the EU.
Cyprus, one of the countries that joined in 2004, has shown a significant downward trend from a high start in 2004. This is particularly surprising as Cyprus does still have compulsory voting.
Lithuania is bucking the trend in 2014 but is at quite a low level overall in this group.
The Poor Performers – on average under 40%
Again, I am separating this group into two subgroups. The first is a group of two Member States: Portugal and the UK.
Portugal joined in 1986 (and so the 1984 result relates to the 1986 election) and shows a downward trend and a low turnout throughout except in the first two elections they participated in.
The UK, a Member State since 1973 and therefore participating in all 8 elections, has the lowest turnout (never above 39 percent and on one occasion as low as 24 per cent) of any of the older Member States and despite some variations, is consistently low. Given the claim that democracy is a British value, this is particularly disappointing. It would be interesting, though beyond the scope of this post, to look at turnout in general elections in different EU Member States and see how the UK compares.
The other group of poor performers are all newer Member States.
Indeed, these are 9 of the 12 countries that joined in 2004/2007 and Croatia who only joined in 2013; Latvia is the only of these Member States ever to get above 50 per cent; it is a dismal picture of participation in countries hailed as having come out of communist dictatorship into the promise of democracy. But the reality is that citizens are not making use of their democratic right to choose.