Eurosceptics vs Europhiles: in 8 EU countries, not even half of citizens will vote in the next European elections

Among the causes is “voter fatigue”, but also a latent conflict between Euroscepticism and pro-Europeanism.

Published On: March 19th, 2024

Illustration: El Confidencial

There are less than 100 days to go until the European elections. Between 6th and 9th June, more than 370 million citizens are entitled to go to the polls to elect their MEPs who, as the European Parliament itself explains: “shape and decide new laws that influence all aspects of life in the European Union”. Despite the fact that European institutions guide our daily lives – from causing rural protests in countries like Spain, France and Italy to changing the way we use Google search – the European elections do not tend to attract much interest. In fact, academics study them as “second-order elections”, in the words of Mariano Torcal, Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

The fact that the European elections are of less interest is reflected in voting patterns: in 2019, around 50% of the electorate abstained from voting. This is not the highest figure, but since 1979 there has been a general trend of abstention. In fact, up to eight countries have never had more than half of the population vote in European elections (nine if we include the United Kingdom during its membership of the EU). Torcal believes that citizens are increasingly aware that what is decided in Europe is important, but the distance with which these institutions are viewed, the importance given to them by the media and even the parties themselves, and the national interpretation of these elections has resulted in consistently low turnouts. Karim Hallal, an expert on European affairs, believes that when the national media’s attention is focused on more technical issues, however important and affecting they may be, they do not easily reach ordinary citizens. “But if you have problems with agriculture, climate change, migration or a growing tension with Russia, […] then maybe that will motivate people to understand the importance of their vote and that, depending on the results, the EU can go one way or the other politically,” he says.

For Torcal, a large part of the increase in abstention can be explained by the accession of Eastern European countries, where participation rates are generally low, rather than an ‘across-the-board’ distancing from European politics. “I wouldn’t say there is less interest,” he says. He adds that in these countries there is a latent conflict between Euroscepticism and pro-Europeanism, which also affects voter turnout. For his part, Hallal points to a general “voter fatigue” on the continent. “When you suddenly enter the European Union, you have a kind of emphasis, an emotion that then fades over time”, he explains, and maintains that this feeling has also been transferred to the national level. “When democracy and the joy of voting began, a lot of people voted. It was very important and it was understood that you didn’t want to go back to what was there before, but over time that passion has worn off”, he adds.

In the last elections, the highest abstention rates could be found in Eastern Europe. Specifically, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia are the countries where the percentage of people who did not go to the polls was the highest: over 70% in all cases. Portugal, Ireland and the Netherlands are also among the countries with the lowest turnout. Spain, on the other hand, had the sixth highest turnout in 2019, when the European elections also coincided with municipal and regional elections.

Eight countries have never achieved more than 50 per cent turnout. These are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Croatia. And only five countries have managed to keep abstention below 50% in all European elections. They are Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy and Malta. In the first three there is a very obvious explanation: voting is compulsory. In Luxembourg, non-voters are fined by law. The Belgians go even further; non-voters can be ‘eliminated’ from the electoral roll for years. In Greece, although voting is also compulsory, the authorities do not prosecute or penalise those who do not comply. Until recently, voting was compulsory also in Cyprus, although it will no longer be compulsory in the forthcoming elections. In Bulgaria, where voting remains compulsory, more than 60% of the electorate abstained in the last European elections. Karim Hallal explains that this disaffection comes after five elections in just two years. “This causes fatigue among voters, and if the European elections coincide before, during or after this period of five elections, people will lose a lot of confidence in voting because they will not see the point,” he says.

Although Italy is one of the states where abstentionism is not alarming, the evolution by country shows that turnout there has fallen year after year. Between 1979 and 2019, turnout fell by 30%. “In some countries, such as Italy, the growth of Euroscepticism has been quite significant”, Torcal points out as one of the explanations for this decline. Even greater is the disaffection in Portugal, with a drop of 40 points between the first and last elections. Greece is another country where the trend is more pronounced. Except for the 2019 figure, where voter turnout picked up slightly, this trend is also seen in Spain, France and Cyprus. The professor reminds us, however, that the countries of the South “have historically been very pro-European”.

The ‘second-order’ European elections

In almost all EU countries, turnout in European elections is always lower than in general elections. Moreover, in these “second-order” elections, as Torcal points out, voters are more inclined to “experiment”, changing their traditional voting patterns or using their vote to send a message.

The lack of information about the institutions up for election, says the European affairs Youtuber, also influences voting. “There is a lack of an explanation as to how they work. We need to get to know the people who work there and, in inverted commas, humanise the institutions. Not in the sense of whitewashing them and thinking that everything they do is fine and that they should not be questioned, but saying ‘hey, there are people working there who are civil servants, who have passed their civil service exams and have nothing to do with politics’,” he argues. In the last elections, only in Romania and Lithuania did the European elections have higher voter turnout than in their general elections. In his opinion, these are countries where this possibility is more feasible because turnout is generally very low, with an added “high electoral volatility”. “These are countries that have very strong economic and political crises and see European politics as an opportunity to have an impact at the national level,” he said.

In the case of Romania, Dani Sandu, PhD in Political Science at the European University Institute in Florence, attributes this to an “exceptional situation”. According to Sandu, the European elections came two and a half years after the general elections, with the then government facing multiple protests and a massive mobilisation. “They were the first opportunity for Romanian citizens to express their discontent with the government’s actions,” he says. For Sandu, this behaviour is not abnormal. “Political research shows that long gaps between elections always result in higher turnout when the election is eventually called”, he says.

Academic studies show a contagion effect between distrust in national politics and a distrust in the EU. “Trust in institutions encourages electoral participation, as in national elections,” says Torcal. However, in crisis situations (such as during the pandemic), Europe appears as a “saviour”, which increases confidence in the EU and can generate greater interest in European politics, according to Torcal. Some countries, for their part, may attach almost the same importance to European elections as to national ones. This has been observed in Germany, where “citizens may perceive that they have greater influence to directly or indirectly affect European policies”, according to an article by Torcal and Toni Rodón published in 2021.

Better educated and richer countries have lower abstention rates

EDJNet has also studied socio-demographic information for each of the countries. By cross-referencing this with abstention data from recent elections, the team drew some conclusions; that high levels of higher education are associated with lower abstention rates. This is the case in countries such as Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where around 40% of the population have studied in higher education. Meanwhile, the last presidential elections in Romania showed a 68% abstention rate in a country where only 16% had higher education.

This trend also appears when looking at the relationship between abstention and the tertiary sector of the economy – the proportion of the population engaged in activities that provide services, such as tourism, health or transport – or with average income, variables which, in turn, are also related to the level of education. The level of knowledge about elections, which is also higher among the population with higher education qualifications, is another of the variables that, at the individual level, determines whether or not a person will vote. These indicators are useful for measuring differences between individuals, says Torcal, but the context of each country, the political and economic situation in each case, is more important in explaining the differences between countries. Karim Hallal also stressed the importance of the political culture of each country and gave the example of the United Kingdom, where constituents are able to speak to MPs through surgeries and offices, a proposal that is, a priori, “unthinkable” in Spain.

The data, on the other hand, reveals that there is no clear link between age and turnout, contrary to the popular belief that an older population results in higher turnouts. “Those who are ideological are going to vote for sure, but when it comes down to it, who wins or loses will depend on the non-polarised,” Torcal says. In his opinion, in Spain these elections are going to be “a kind of referendum on the government, but European policy will not be discussed”. On the one hand, this could encourage more people to vote, but at the same time, it could discourage people from voting, as they may think that what comes out of the ballot box will not be reflected in national politics. Given the clear disconnection between citizens and European institutions, Karim Hallal believes that there is still room for improvement to do “more and better”, and considers that what is lacking is the target audience of electoral campaigns. “I think one of the problems is to know how to attract people who are not interested in the European Union, […] people who say ‘Hey, I’ve never been given a talk about the European Union to understand the importance of the vote. Hey, I’ve never stopped to think about how the EU affects me’. When you get to that point is when you really start doing better, not necessarily doing more,” he argues.

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