The May 2014 EU election saw the lowest voter turnout on record, according to updated figures discretely released by the European Parliament during the summer holiday period for EU institutions.
The updated numbers, published on the Parliament website, show that turnout struggled to reach 42.54% in 2014, well below the 43.1% initially announced.
Diplomatic pencils will be being snapped in despair at the lowest public enthusiasm for an EU poll since 1979, when elections were first held.
The tweaked figures will also come as an embarrassment for EU officials who had hailed the results of the 2014 poll for finally reversing a trend of declining voter engagement with EU polls.
The Parliament in particular ran its entire campaign on an assumption that the economic crisis would boost voter turnout, with the slogan "This time it's different".
It was, but not in the way that lawmakers expected.
Jaume Duch Guillot, the Parliament spokesperson, said on election night that the EU had witnessed "a historical moment because for the first time since 1979, the long term trend of declining turnout has been reversed".
Turnout is seen as a litmus for the EU Parliament's democratic legitimacy by many but it has fallen steadily, from 62% in 1979 to 43% in the 2009 election.
Worryingly for europhiles, the new low will call into in question the legislative credibility of the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the lead candidate for the liberals and a convinced federalist had initially hailed the marginally-higher turnout estimate, saying the new Parliament "will be more representative than the previous one".
The actual result will also cast doubt on the experiment of having lead candidates - or ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ - campaigning for the major European political families.
When the first result was estimated, Simon Hix, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics (LSE) said that it proved “the validity of the experiment to personalise the campaigns and focus them on European issues”.
A Parliament spokesperson quoted by the EUobserver news website said the change in turnout numbers was due to differences in estimated and final results for Spain and Italy.
Still, the spokesperson put on a brave face: "When you look at the final result and the figure that was estimated at the end of May - those two figures are very close. The final figure, which is a little bit lower than in 2009, confirms that the big descending tendency of previous years has been stopped," the spokesperson told EUobserver.
Turnout did in fact rise in some countries, notably Greece where the sovereign debt crisis and austerity measures imposed by the EU/IMF bailout drove the population to vote en masse. The presence of populist parties with activist bases - particularly the far-left Syriza which won the vote they had billed as a referendum on the bail-out deal - may also have helped turnout there to climb from 52.61% in 2009 to 59.97% in 2014.
The numbers in other bail-out countries decreased:
- In Spain, turnout reached 43.1%, lower than the 44.87% recorded in 2009.
- In Portugal, turnout fell to 33.67%, down from 36.77 in 2009.
- Ireland saw the biggest drop, to 52.44%, down from 58.64% in 2009.
Reacting to the publication of this article, Jaume Duch, the European Parliament spokesperson, sent EurActiv the following statement on 11 August:
"Our figures were not 'updated' nor 'discretely released' and even less in an attempt to hide whatsoever 'during the summer holiday period for EU institutions', as your headline might be suggesting.
First, what we had on the Results webpage until 25 July was our estimate given during the election night - 43.09%. We have always stressed that this was an estimate, based on projections (as some countries were still voting and none had published official results by the time we were announcing this estimate).
You might note that the difference between 42.54% and 43.09% is 0.55pp. I would not say that it is 'well below', as you are suggesting. Rather, also given the rapidity with which we were able to give this estimate, we are confident that we were very close to the actual result.
Our figures were not 'updated' - we replaced the estimate by the actual result.
Second, this was by no means done 'discretely'. Parliament was not hiding the final turnout figure – for the publication of which it has no legal obligation – anyhow. It has always been said that the updates of the voting results would be put on the results webpage as they come and as they are confirmed by national authorities and that the final turnout would be put there as well, when ready. There have not been press releases on the successive updates of the election results nor composition of the political groups either, and nor were there any official press releases announcing these and the EU-wide turnout in 2009. Journalists were informed that all those updates would be published in our special internet pages on the European elections results.
As for the timing, we would have wished to publish the turnout figure earlier if this was possible for us. But it wasn’t. The official national figures needed to be confirmed in some cases with the national authorities (which need to wait, in some cases, for complaints or recalculation of some districts before they can confirm the final figure). The Parliament cannot of course publish the final EU-wide figure before the 28 national authorities confirm theirs, which takes some time.
The last confirmation reached Parliament's services on 25 July in the morning and following this confirmation, the final figure was put on the website the very same day.
As for our analysis of the turnout figure, a difference of 0.46pp compared to 2009 results can be considered as a status quo. The more pronounced descending turnout tendency of previous elections has well been contained (56.67% in 1994, 49.51% in 1999, 45.47% in 2004, 43% in 2009, 42.54% in 2014). A fair comparison should take into consideration the fact that Croats did not vote in 2009. The turnout without Croatia would be around 42,8%
Concerning your comment on the Spitzenkandidaten, you might have seen that countries such as Germany and France, which saw an increase in participation – 4,83pp for Germany, 1,8pp for France – were also the countries in which the media coverage of the Spitzenkandidaten was the strongest and the citizens the best acquainted about the process. This is by far the most interesting element of the 2014 turnout and the most political one."