The extent of voter turnout in the 2014 European Parliamentary (EP) election is widely viewed as a critical test for European democracy. Turnout in the EP elections has steadily declined over three decades, from 62% in the first election in 1979 to 43% in the 2009 election (EP Liaison Office undated). There is great concern that the legitimacy of the EU is at stake should there be a further slide in voter turnout. Such legitimacy is of particular concern since the crisis has been accompanied by a growing European divide – between the ‘north’ and the ‘south’, and between the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’. Greater voter turnout will affirm a willingness to bridge the divide, to share the hardships, and forge ahead. This may well be the most important EP election ever, and the European Commission has set an ambitious goal of increasing voter participation (European Commission 2013).
Eurobarometer surveys report a sharp increase in mistrust of European institutions since the start of the crisis, which bodes ill for voter turnout. Some, however, take the view that the increased authority of the European Parliament under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty could galvanise voters to leverage that authority into a renewed effort for greater European solidarity and prosperity.
Our analysis suggests that the lack of trust, especially in the ability of European institutions to provide financial stability and safety nets, will dominate the voting decision, leading to a further fall in turnout to 40% or even lower.
Debating causes of low turnout
The dominant explanation for low voter turnout in EP elections has been that voters deem the European parliament to be of minor importance to their lives. EP elections are ‘second-order national elections’ because voters do not view their direct interests to be at stake. As such, Hobolt and Wittrock (2011) note, voter turnout is lower and representation of smaller parties is higher in EP elections than in national elections. Hix and Marsh (2007) also emphasise that voting for the EU Parliament often reflects an urge to send a signal of disapproval to the national government, rather than being an anti-EU protest vote.
However, Hix and Crombez (2013) argue that the 2014 EP election could be different and offers a real opportunity to shape European politics. In particular, the call for political parties to announce their preference for a Commission President before the elections – and the presumption that the European Council will defer to this choice – could induce a higher turnout (Banner and Zandt 2009).
A second, more structural explanation for continued decline in voter turnout is changing demographics. Higher voter turnout in earlier EP elections reflected the commitment of the baby-boomer generation to Europe and, hence, to the EU Parliament. As the baby-boomers age, the trend in lower voter turnout is likely to persist (Bhatti and Hansen 2013).
Trust in the ECB
Perhaps both of these two factors will remain at play in the forthcoming election. Yet we argue for a closer examination of how economic incentives impact turnout in EP elections. Grönlund and Setälä (2007) find that trust in political institutions helps boost turnout. In the current European context, rather than a general sense of trust, a more specific consideration could be at play. We examine the proposition that the ability to provide meaningful financial stability and relief is the salient dimension of how voters assess institutions. We find that trust in the ECB, as the key player determining monetary and financial policy, appears to be a critical factor in explaining changes in voter turnout.
Figure 1 shows changes in voter turnout between 1999 and 2009 against changes in net trust (those reporting trust minus those reporting mistrust) in the ECB over the same period. The data for both voter turnout and net trust in the ECB is plotted for the 15 EU member states that participated in the EP elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009. There seems to be a prima facie relationship between voter turnout and trust in the ECB. Notice, in this graph and in the regressions below, European countries outside of the Eurozone are also included – these countries also report perceptions of trust in the ECB. This measure, therefore, reflects not just what the ECB does directly for the Eurozone countries, but also a broader notion of financial stability in Europe.
Figure 1. Change in voter turnout vs. change in net trust in the ECB, 1999–2009
Sources: European Commission, Eurobarometer Surveys, “Trust in Institutions – The European Central Bank”; International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), “Voter Turnout Database, Europe, EU Parliament”.
Notes: 1. Data on trust in the ECB is taken from the bi-annual Eurobarometer public opinion surveys for the period from 1999–2009, which draw from a random selection of respondents aged 15 and over from the population in each EU member state.
2. Net trust in the ECB = Trust in the ECB – Mistrust in the ECB. This metric was introduced by Gärtner (1997) and used recently by Roth, Nowak-Lehmann, and Otter (2013).
Building from the basic relationship charted above, we conducted a regression analysis of how voter turnout is influenced by changes in trust in the ECB. The major finding from our analysis is that reduced trust in the ECB is strongly associated with reduced voter turnout in EP elections.
Our model accounted for country size (given that smaller countries tend to have higher voter turnouts) as well as changes in key economic factors, including the previous year’s GDP growth, unemployment rate, and inflation rate. We found that the two economic variables that are statistically salient are the ones that represent fiscal stress. Specifically, where a country’s fiscal problems are greater, voters are more inclined to vote. This could reflect the hope that a stronger Europe will provide fiscal relief.
There does not appear to be a significant relationship between trust in the European Parliament and voter turnout. In other words, trust in the European Parliament does not draw voters, an observation that questions the likelihood that procedural changes in this election will have a material influence on voter turnout. Instead, the ability to deliver financial relief through the ECB or alleviate national fiscal distress helps create a more benign attitude to Europe, leading to higher voter turnout.
Building on these regression findings, we predict expected 2014 voter turnout in EU member states based on the latest data on fiscal variables of debt-to-GDP ratio, government deficit, and the net trust in the ECB (Table 1). The projection labelled ‘2014 Turnout Model Prediction’ utilises the full model, controlling for population, compulsory voting, trust in the ECB, and country fiscal factors. The projection labelled ‘2014 Model Prediction without Domestic Fiscal Factors’ controls only for the variables of population, compulsory voting, and trust in the ECB. Thus we provide two predictions for each EU member state. The predictions from the full model include the mediating effects of fiscal covariates. The other model discounts the possibility that greater domestic fiscal stress will cause people to look to Europe and hence places the spotlight on trust in the ECB.
Table 1. Predictions
Note: A 2014 projection for population of each EU member state is drawn from the IMF World Economic Outlook database in order to use an up-to-date figure for turnout predictions.
Figure 2, which summarises the results, says that voter turnout will likely fall from 43% in 2009 to between 38 and 40%. The higher turnout of 40% would reflect some expectation of relief of national fiscal distress from Europe. Even so, it would not be enough to offset the precipitous decline in trust in the ECB. We are inclined to favour the lower end of our predictions. In the past, as Kaltenthaler and Anderson (2001) also found, nationals of an EU member state were more likely to turn to Europe when their national authorities did not deliver. However, those past expectations have been belied during the recent crisis when that help from Europe was limited, and grudging.
Figure 2. EU voter turnout predictions
Focusing on specific countries, a higher voter turnout in the expectation of greater fiscal support from Europe would most likely occur, not surprisingly, in the European periphery countries, where fiscal conditions have deteriorated the most and the need for relief is the greatest (Figure 3). In Portugal, this possibility may even raise the voter participation from the previous election. Elsewhere in the periphery, however, with or without such expectation, voter turnout will likely fall, possibly quite steeply, as in Italy.
Figure 3. European periphery countries
In contrast, in the ‘north’, voter turnout is expected to be low not only because of reduced trust in the ECB but, possibly, in addition because their fiscal situation does not require support from Europe (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Northern countries
A guide to interpreting the turnout
The EP elections should give us some insight on whether the strengthening of the European Parliament is sufficient to foster a reaffirmation of a European vision, or whether more tangible economic benefits are needed for that confidence to emerge. To be clear, ours are merely rough predictions – predicting an exact voter turnout is notoriously difficult and can be contingent on factors that vary by the day, such as weather. Nevertheless, the results should help us evaluate the turnout that does transpire. If it is in the range we predict, it will be consistent with past patterns and the fall will mainly reflect the already visible loss of faith in Europe’s financial capacity and sense of solidarity. If, moreover, the fall in voter participation is greater in the periphery, it will confirm a growing European divide between debtors and creditors. If overall voter turnout is lower than 38%, that would imply greater doubts about European democracy than past patterns suggest, and possibly an indictment of the European Parliament. In contrast, a voter turnout in the 40–43% range – and even more so a turnout above the 2009 turnout of 43% – would normally signal hope that solidarity can yet be achieved. The risk, of course, is that the higher turnout is driven by a strong anti-European sentiment.
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Bhatti, Yosef and Kasper Møller Hansen (2013), “Turnout at European Parliament Elections is Likely to Continue to Decline in the Coming Decades”, LSE European Politics and Policy blog.
European Commission (2013), “European Parliament Elections – Getting Out The Vote”, 13 March.
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European Parliament Liaison Office with U.S. Congress (undated), “European Elections 2014”.
Gärtner, M (1997), “Who Wants the Euro - and Why? Economic Explanations of Public Attitudes Towards a Single European Currency”, Public Choice, 93: 487–510.
Gratschew, Maria (2004), “Compulsory Voting in Western Europe”, Voter Turnout in Western Europe, International IDEA publication.
Grönlund, Kimmo and Maija Setälä (2007), “Political Trust, Satisfaction and Voter Turnout”, Comparative European Politics, 5: 400–422.
Hix, Simon and Cristophe Crombez (2013), “The European parliament elections in 2014 are about more than protest votes”, Comment is free, 3 June.
Hix, Simon and Michael Marsh (2007), “Punishment or Protest? Understanding European Parliament Elections”, Journal of Politics, 69(2): 506–507.
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Kaltenthaler, Karl C and Christopher J Anderson (2001), “Europeans and Their Money: Explaining Public Support for the Common Currency”, European Journal of Political Research, 40: 139–170.
Roth, Felix, Felicitas Nowak-Lehmann, and Thomas Otter (2013), “Crisis and Trust in National and European Union Institutions - Panel Evidence for the EU, 1999-2012”, European University Institute Working Paper RSCAS 2013/31.