EU elections seen as irrelevant, survey finds

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A third of voters who decided not to use their ballot in this summer’s European Parliament elections only made their decision in the final days of the election campaign, according to a European Parliament Eurobarometer survey conducted in the month following the June poll.

32% of these abstainers said they had decided not to vote either several days before the election (16%), or on election day itself (16%), the survey reveals. 

The survey of 26,830 people across Europe was carried out in the month following the 4-7 June elections. Citizens were asked to give their reasons for choosing whether or not to vote, and, if they did vote, what factors they took into account in deciding which party to vote for.

Half of all abstainers declared an “attachment to Europe” and 36% in that group said they only made the decision not to vote either on election day itself or in the final days leading up to the ballot. 

Parliament analysts saw this as an encouragement, indicating that the population might “constitute a group of electors who could be persuaded to vote” in future. 

Failure to attract voters 

Julia De Clerck-Sachsse, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), said failure to attract pro-European voters was the responsibility of both the European Parliament and the political parties themselves. 

De Clerck-Sachsse said this failure should also be seen in the wider context of “a decrease in participation at national level, and the general disillusionment with politicians and with party politics,” which she says can be seen throughout Europe. 

The common perception that politics is distant and less relevant to voters is amplified at European level because the European Parliament is simply further away, and seems “less transparent and sometimes less democratic” in comparison to national parliaments, argues the CEPS expert. 

De Clerck-Sachsse says that the prominent role the Socialists will play in the new Parliament, and the probability that they will get the presidency of the Parliament in the second half of its mandate, despite having “failed to mobilise at the elections,” is just the kind of parliamentary behaviour that adds to voter disillusionment. 

Although turnout in the elections fell to 43% from 45.47% for the previous ballot, the decline was smaller than during past elections. 

However, the EU-wide turnout figures conceal significant variations between member states. Turnout in eleven countries actually increased in this year’s election, countering the impact of the headline EU-wide figure. 

Successes in increasing voter turnout came in countries where politicians had made an effort to bring European issues into national debates, observed De Clerck-Sachsse, pointing to the example of Sweden, where she said there was “much more scrutiny of EU policy,” resulting in Sweden moving from “Eurosceptic to EU-favourable” and increasing its turnout by 7.68 percentage points. 

European elections still fare badly compared to national elections, indicates the survey, with a third of those voting in national elections choosing not to vote in the EU poll and only 3% indicating that they only vote in European elections. 

Youth vote decreasing 

Worryingly for the Parliament, the youth vote decreased as a proportion of the overall ballot by 4% at this year’s election, with the study reporting “a difference of 21 percentage points between the 18-24 age group and the 55+ age group”. 

Youngsters formed the largest group to declare that they were under-informed about the elections, according to the survey results, with 50% feeling they had received too little information. 

Differences in participation were even starker between the various professional categories. Despite the economy and employment being one of the most prominent issues in the campaign, only 28% of Europe’s unemployed voted, while at the other end of the spectrum, over 53% of executive directors and managers turned out to cast their ballot. 

Contrary to widespread media coverage which would appear to suggest otherwise, the European Parliament study revealed that ‘anti-Europe’ campaigns did not mobilise substantial numbers of voters, reporting that “of the 32% of people who felt no attachment to Europe, only one third of them voted (33.5%)”. Meanwhile, of the 64% who said they felt attached to Europe, the survey indicated that 49% cast their ballot. 

Background

Overall turnout in the elections was down by 2.47 percentage points compared with the 2004 elections, a smaller decline than in the past. This overall figure masks major national variations, with turnout up in eight member states, about the same in a further eight, moderately lower in seven countries and markedly lower in four member states. 

While successive EU enlargements have increased the number of sitting MEPs and the European Parliament's powers have increased substantially with each change to the EU treaties, voter turnout in European elections has been in constant decline, leaving the Parliament open to criticism that it lacks legitimacy. 

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