European Elections: Outlook for 2009


While the European Parliament has gained extensive new powers since the first European elections were held thirty years ago, voter turnout has consistently fallen, calling into question the ability of EU politicians to reverse the trend for the 2009 elections.

The European Parliament is the only EU institution directly elected on a strictly European mandate. By contrast, the members of the Council of the EU, which represents member states at ministerial level, are primarily elected on a national mandate. The European Commission's mandate is to pursue the general EU interest but its individual members are designated by the national capitals, a matter which has attracted criticism from those arguing that the EU executive is a powerful yet unelected body. 

Each EU member state decides how the European election is organised within its own boundaries, but all follow identical democratic rules: the system must be a form of proportional representation, minimum voting age must be 18, equality of the sexes must be respected and a secret ballot must be the electoral method. 

Seats are divided proportionately to the population of each member state (see full distribution of seats on the Parliament's website). Each country has a set number of seats, the maximum being 99 (Germany) and the minimum five (Malta). The current number of MEPs (785) exceeds the agreed maximum under the current (Nice) treaty. 

The proportion of female MEPs elected in 2004 was 30.2%, while in 1979 it was just 16.5%. 

Chronology of European Parliament Elections

  • 10 Sept. 1952: First sitting of the European Parliament: then a consultative assembly consisting of 78 parliamentarians from the national parliaments of the founding member states of the European Communities (EC). It had no legislative powers.
  • June 1979: First direct elections (turnout 63%).
  • 1981: First by-election held in Greece.
  • 1984: EC 10 holds elections (turnout 61%).
  • 1987: By-election held in Portugal and Spain.
  • 1989: EC 10 holds elections (turnout 58.5%).
  • 1992: Treaty establishing the European Union (Maastricht Treaty).
  • 1994: EU 12 holds elections (turnout 56.8%).
  • 1995: By-election held in Austria, Finland and Sweden.
  • 1999: EU 15 holds elections (turnout 49.8%).
  • 2004: EU 25 holds elections (turnout 45.6%).
  • 2007: By-election held in Bulgaria and Romania.  
  • June 2009: EU 27 hold elections.  

2009 election: With or without the Lisbon Treaty? 

The 2009 elections will bring with them additional uncertainty because of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland. If the treaty is not ratified in all member states in time for the June elections, the Nice Treaty will continue to apply. This will have a direct impact on the number of seats allocated, which in turn could disrupt the organisation of the elections at national level as it could become unclear how many seats will be up for grabs. 

Under the current treaties (Nice Treaty), the total number of seats will be brought down to 736 after the 2009 election. However, if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the new total will be 751. 

The matter is very important to the EU's member states, all of whom are keen to wield greater influence in Parliament by obtaining the highest number of seats possible. During negotiations on the Lisbon Treaty, Germany was eager to have its representation in Parliament reflect its population size and finally won the argument for keeping its total number of seats unchanged at 99. On the other hand, France and the UK had to scale down their numbers from 78 to 74 and 73 respectively in order to make room for MEPs from newer member states. And in a last-minute lobbying campaign, Italy - which currently has 78 seats like France and the UK - managed to keep its numbers at 73, up from the 72 seats it was initially offered (EURACTIV 12/10/07). 

Halting the decline in voter turnout 

While successive EU enlargements have increased the number of sitting MEPs and the Parliament's powers have increased substantially with each change to the EU treaties, voter turnout in European elections has been in constant decline. A record low was reached in 2004, when turnout was a feeble 45.6% and many ruling parties suffered substantial losses. 

A number of reasons have been suggested for this decline and a number of solutions have been proposed to reverse it.

Country  1979  1984  1989  1994 (95: SE, AT, FI)  1999  2004  Trend 
Austria        67.7 49.4 41.8 Downward
Belgium  91.4 92.2 90.7 90.7 91.0 90.8 Downward (mandatory voting)
Denmark  47.8 52.2 47.4 52.9 50.5 47.8 Downward
Finland        57.6 31.4 41.1 Upward
France  60.7 56.7 48.8 52.7 46.8 43.1 Downward
Germany  65.7 56.8 62.3 60.0 45.2 43 Downward
Greece  78.6 77.2 80.1 80.4 75.3 62.8 Downward (mandatory voting)
Ireland  63.6 47.6 68.3 44.0 50.2 59.7 Upward
Italy  84.9 83.4 81.4 74.8 70.8 73.1 Upward
Luxembourg  88.9 87.0 96.2 88.5 87.3 90 Upward (mandatory voting)
Netherlands  58.1 50.6 47.5 35.6 30.0 39.1 Upward
Portugal    72.4 51.2 35.5 40 38.7 Downward
Spain    68.9 54.7 59.1 63 45.9 Downward
Sweden        41.6 38.8 37.2 Downward
United Kingdom  32.2 31.8 36.6 36.4 24.0 38.9 Upward
* * * * * * * *
Cyprus            71.19  
Czech Republic            27.9  
Estonia            26.89  
Hungary            38.47  
Latvia            41.23  
Lithuania            48.2  
Malta            82.4  
Poland            20.4  
Slovakia            16.7  
Slovenia            28.3  

Source: European Parliament (2004-2009)

European elections: Strengthening the EU's democratic legitimacy 

Since 1979, the directly elected European Parliament has gradually and consistently increased its political powers. This trend was reinforced with every new major treaty, and the co-decision procedure (where Parliament legislates on an equal footing with the EU Council of Ministers) is today extended to almost all areas of EU policymaking. 

This in turn means that European citizens have a more direct say in the workings of the EU. An empowered Parliament means empowered citizens come European Election Day. 

As an illustration of Parliament's strengthened role, one need look no further than the national impact of EU legislation. Currently, most new laws in member states derive from European legislation (according to estimates, between 60% and 80% of national legislation stems from rules agreed at European level). 

The Parliament, as well as increasing in size, has also grown to be more confident and assertive. This was most clearly demonstrated when in 1999 the Parliament forced the resignation of the Santer Commission. 

A strong Parliament fulfilling its democratic mandate in the EU's system of "checks and balances" should also add to the democratic legitimacy of both the Parliament itself and the Union as a whole. 

In theory, all this should make the relevance of European elections self-evident. However, the constant decline in voter turnout and the general feeling of distance that the electorate appears to feel with the EU institutions suggests otherwise. 

European elections: 'Second-order national elections'? 

Why, then, given the increasing power and relevance of the European Parliament, is voter turnout so low at European elections? There are a number of factors to consider. 

Firstly, European elections are still fought mainly on national issues. Most academics – and more crucially, politicians themselves - actually consider them to be "second-order national elections" (EURACTIV 14/04/08

In effect, the vast majority of European voters remain unaware of the policy issues and fights that are taking place at the European level. As a result, the national level tends to step in as a substitute (EURACTIV 14/05/08).  There is, as yet, no real European political sphere to speak of. 

To make matters worse, it appears that voters use European elections as a means to punish their governments mid-term, attesting to the weak politicisation of European integration in most EU countries. 

Politicians therefore tend to base their campaigns on national issues and seek recognition for things that matter to their national parties and constituencies. This is also due to the way the elections are organised as the election lists are determined according to national or regional parties. 

Sebastian Kurpas, a research fellow at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, recently told EURACTIV: "You can be a very successful MEP who works very hard at European level but it might not in the end be determinant to having a top position on the list. In the end, it will be more important to be in good terms with the national parties that draw up the list" (EURACTIV 14/05/08). 

Moreover, European political parties are still dependent on their national affiliates if they want to exist, says Kurpas. "As a single individual, you could not join the European Socialist Party or the EPP - the only way to become a member is through your national party." 

Reasons behind voter apathy: Voting will not change anything 

Secondly, there is a widespread perception among voters that their voice will not make a big difference. Many do not feel an incentive to go to the polls because they do not see direct consequences in terms of power-sharing at EU level. 

Indeed, with 785 MEPs, even Germany, the largest EU country with 99 seats in Parliament, only has a fairly limited amount of influence. Things are obviously worse for tiny countries such as Luxembourg (six MEPs) or Malta (five MEPs). With 78 MEPs, even a large country like France has long lamented its loss of influence in the EU and this is one of the factors explaining the country's reluctance towards further enlargement of the bloc. 

Reviewing political affiliation instead of nationality should bring a better view of how power is divided in the European Parliament. With 288 MEPs, the centre-right EPP-ED Group proudly claims to be the most influential political group in Parliament. 

But affiliation to a political group or party can be a misleading indicator as MEPs do not always follow the same line. The British Conservatives for example are notoriously more reluctant towards EU integration than their German counterparts, yet both are members of the same European Parliament group. As a result, the political programmes of European political groups and parties tend to be diluted in order to cater for the particular sensitivities of the different national party affiliates. 

The result is a lack of a clear power struggle between parties who moreover lack clear-cut programmes and objectives. The fact that no major party officially backs a candidate for top European jobs such as the Commission President adds to the impression that European elections do not really matter that much. 

Poor media coverage and lack of information 

Survey conducted by TNS opinion & social

Consequently, lack of interest in European elections is rife among media professionals who find it difficult to "sell their story" to editors, particularly to the national media and television. 

Cees Van der Eijk, a professor of social science at the University of Nottingham in the UK, argues that "the media pays very little attention to European elections. EU actors are generally invisible, and the elections are labelled boring even before they take place". 

Moreover, he says "when the media constantly predicts low voter turnout, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy" (EURACTIV 14/04/08

In other words, a vicious circle of voter apathy has developed among EU citizens, fuelled by a lack of clear-cut power struggles which in turn diverts media interest away from the election. This apathy was most notoriously demonstrated when 11 million turned out to vote in the 1999 European elections in the UK, while 23 million voted on the popular "Big Brother" TV show a few years later. 

A lack of basic information about the Parliament and the elections is also a concern. A recent Eurobarometer poll indicated that EU citizens largely consider the European Parliament to play an increasingly important role within the Union, but the majority also admit that they are not well-informed about its role and functions. 

For example, 73% of the people interviewed admitted that they feel fairly or very badly informed about the Parliament's activities. And only 10% of those surveyed were actually aware that the next elections will take place in 2009. 

Essentially, voters do not feel they understand what the Parliament does, let alone what it does for them, and they stay at home on Election Day as a result. 

Reasons to be positive 

Amid these negatives, a number of positives have been identified. 

First, the lack of a well-defined European political sphere has not prevented the Parliament from developing a stable and largely representative political assembly. 

At elections, voters still tend to choose on the basis of national contexts, but because European Parliament political groups have a socialisation effect, they bring cohesion to their members after the election. According to Van der Eijk, European parties are still surprisingly coherent in policy terms, roughly coinciding with the left-right political continuum of most EU countries. Despite the lack of politicisation of European issues, this would tend to show that voters broad political preferences are still represented – albeit indirectly, he says (EURACTIV 14/04/08).

Secondly, although voter turnout is low compared to national elections, it is still higher than, for example, mid-term elections in the USA. Former European Parliament President Pat Cox once famously pointed out that the 1999 European election turnout was higher than the previous US Presidential election. 

Strategies to re-engage European voters: What the parties are doing 

Nevertheless, falling turnout levels and growing apathy remain a serious concern for the EU polity and a number of solutions have been suggested to reverse the trend. 

The most far-reaching idea is to establish a proper pan-European election campaign where each political family – conservatives, socialists, liberals, etc. - would run similar campaigns on pan-European issues in each member state. Under the most federalist scenario, people would vote directly for candidates selected by the European parties instead of the national parties. 

Among European parties, the European Green Party (EGP) has gone the furthest down this pan-European road. During the 2004 election, the Greens were the first political family to hold a common campaign based on written materials and posters, said Philippe Lamberts, co-spokesperson of the EGP in an interview with EURACTIV (EURACTIV 25/01/08).

For the 2009 campaign, the EGP plans to do even more, with a "common campaign" and events planned in several European capitals such as Rome and Prague. "You will really feel that the Greens are acting together rather than just speaking together," said Lamberts. 

However, he also admitted that there was some way to go before the Greens could show a truly united front, as some national affiliates such as Britain and Sweden may have stronger anti-European stances. "In some countries, the common campaign will be 99% of the campaign because they do not want to add a national touch to it, whereas in other countries the common campaign might only make up 15%." 

In the socialist camp, low turnout is the biggest concern, with widespread disenchantment about Europe a cause of voter apathy which socialists fear could make them lose influence in the European Parliament. "Traditionally, we feel it is our own voters who stay away," said Julian Scola, a communications and campaign advisor at the Party of European Socialists (PES). Speaking to EURACTIV, he said this was because socialist voters often consider the EU to be "too technocratic" and therefore not relevant enough as a political decision-making entity (EURACTIV 24/04/08). 

To re-engage with its voters, the PES has therefore chosen to polarise the debate along traditional left-right political fault lines. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the president of the PES, recently declared: "We want a manifesto that offers not only a clear choice between left and right, [but one] that has also been shaped through consultation and debate. We want to show that social democrats have different politics from the conservatives, and that we do politics in a different way too." 

The PES has invested heavily in online tools to engage with young voters and has been running a Europe-wide internet consultation on its manifesto for the 2009 elections. But it remains to be seen whether the party will come up with a meaningful programme that will bring its traditional voters back to the ballot boxes. 

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) will unveil its election programme at the party's Warsaw Congress in April 2009. According to its spokespeople, the EPP campaign will "seek to bridge the gap between the EU institutions and public opinion by focusing on the real issues and problems faced by the citizens such as climate change, demographic change, ensuring a more prosperous and safer Europe for everyone, and Europe’s role in the world."

The EPP has experienced difficulties in finding a consensus among its 72 member parties on divisive issues such as Turkey's EU accession or the reform of the EU budget. However, its political group in the European Parliament, the EPP-ED, has managed to put together a broadly-worded political strategy divided under four headings: 1) Creating a Europe of values; 2) A Europe of growth and prosperity; 3) Making Europe a safer place, and; 4) Achieving greater solidarity in Europe. 

After the last European elections in 2004, the EPP faced a number of criticisms, with some accusing the party of incorporating extra national party affiliates only to win more parliamentary seats, at the expense of political coherence. Max Kohnstamm, the honorary president of the European Policy Centre (EPC), a Brussels think-tank, criticised the composition of the Parliament group, the EPP-ED, noting that it consists of both elected officials striving for an integrated, "quasi-federal Europe" and sceptics who want a looser kind of integration. 

"What binds them are not political objectives but numbers," Kohnstamm said. "To call such a group the parliamentary representation of a political party is no more than a game of words and a simple misleading of voters." 

Whether the EPP will be able to translate its political strategy into a coherent common campaign for the 2009 election therefore remains to be seen. And it is not certain either that such a programme will appeal to its core voters, especially in countries with a traditionally more critical stance towards Europe. 

In response, EPP Press Officer Javier Jimenez noted that "like other political parties, the EPP will be confronted with low participation in the European elections. It is therefore the EPP’s intention to stimulate the debate on European policies involving citizens, institutions and civil society.

The European Liberals and Democrats (ELDR), the third largest political force in Parliament, have only recently started discussing their strategy. The party manifesto will be based around four themes, the first being foreign, security and defence policy. Future discussions on drafting the ELDR 2009 electoral manifesto will take place on the themes of "Liberal Europe" (understood as civil liberties) and the EU single market. The final ELDR electoral programme will be adopted by its Congress on 30 and 31 October 2008 in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Towards common candidates for major EU political parties? 

A common criticism of European elections is their lack of visibility as there are no declared candidates to take up top European jobs, such as Commission President, ahead of the election. If European political parties were to nominate their candidate early, this would personalise the election and stimulate both voter and media interest, claim supporters of a more integrated EU. 

But such a radical measure is still a long way off. During the last campaign in 2004, the centre-right EPP-ED mentioned four of five personalities which it said it could support to lead the European Commission. After claiming victory, however, EPP-ED leaders failed to agree to nominatie either Chris Patten or Guy Verhofstadt as their first choice. Former Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso instead emerged as the compromise candidate. 

  • 30-31 Oct. 2008: European Liberal Democrat and Reform (ELDR) Party Congress in Stockholm. 
  • 1/2 Dec. 2008:  Party of European Socialists (PES) Council in Madrid. 
  • 11/12 Dec. 2008: Ireland to outline a solution to the Lisbon Treaty impasse at EU Council summit. 
  • 29/30 April 2009: European People's Party (EPP) Convention in Warsaw. 
  • 4-7 June 2009: European Parliament Elections

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