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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 41 - May 2004   
 Europeans’ political blues?
 Doubling European research investment
 Showcasing science
 The allergy enigma
 de Gennes – in perpetual motion

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Title  A parliament in search of voters 

The European institutions are often accused of being too distant from the citizens whose lives they increasingly regulate. Yet paradoxically, in most countries people have constantly failed to make the most of the main means at their disposal for influencing these institutions. Will the June 2004 European elections mark a turning point in the increasingly low voter turnout of the past 25 years? We present the results of a socio-political study into the causes of this paradox. 

Initially, the level was 'acceptable'. At the time of the first European Parliament elections in 1979, two-thirds of the citizens who made up the then 'Europe of Ten' turned out to vote. The figure would have been even higher were it not for the impact of a UK turnout of just 32%. 

The four elections over the subsequent 20 years saw a marked erosion in the number of voters in a majority of countries. In 1999, in what was by then the 'Europe of Fifteen', the turnout dropped to 52%. After correcting this figure by eliminating the Member States where voting is compulsory(1), as well as those where the European elections coincided with a national ballot, which is clearly likely to boost the vote, the 'spontaneous' turnout works out at just 39%. 

The turnout has fallen most dramatically in Germany (down 20% against 1979), the Netherlands (down 19%), and France (down 14%). In the United Kingdom, the abstention rate climbed to 76%. Southern Europe nevertheless offers three exceptions to the general pattern: although suffering a slight erosion, turnout in Italy and Greece saw more than seven out of ten voters fulfil their civic duty in the 1999 European elections, while Spain actually saw the turnout increase, from 54% to 64%, in the course of a decade. 

Political science researchers from nine countries recently studied this growing disaffection as part of a European project. Richard Sinnott of University College, Dublin (IE), believes that voter turnout depends a great deal on the socio-demographic characteristics of individuals. European elections interest older people and members of a social elite who have had access to education. Abstention is characteristic of the working classes, the less well educated, and young people.' 

Behind this crude categorisation, we find the recurrent problem of the difficulty – and weakness – of communication on European integration. Between 20% and 35% of registered voters feel neither concerned by, nor interested, in the Union's future. Secondly, the image of the European Parliament, of its powers (or lack of powers), and its system of trans-national parties is decidedly confused. 

Among the possible remedies, the researchers highlight the scope for improving the dynamism of election campaigns. Elected representatives are often not household names and have few direct contacts with the voters on European issues. The messages which get across to voters, through the media or at meetings, are clearly insufficient. 

A second area for action is to enhance the electorate’s awareness of its 'European identity'. Studies carried out by the project identified a limited group representing just 15% of voters who said they were 'proud to be European'. This category showed the maximum propensity to vote. A second somewhat larger group is also likely to vote: those who, while being committed primarily to a national identity, nevertheless recognise a secondary allegiance to Europe. A significant section of the population are indifferent to any European identity, and there is a minority of committed opponents who either abstain or vote for candidates clearly expressing this view.

The remaining question is that of electoral logistics which can also have a negative effect on participation. This is the case, for example, for countries where voting takes place on a weekday rather than on a Sunday. Although this is not seen as a handicap for national ballots, it has a very negative effect on a European vote for which the motivation is weaker.  

(1) Belgium and Luxembourg, where the rates are an average of 91% and 88% respectively over five elections. 

European elections: propensity to vote by age, sex, income and education
European elections: propensity to vote by age, sex, income and education
The percentages between brackets relate to the total number of people in the survey sample (15 415 persons).

The propensity to vote or not for a given category measures the difference between the proportion expressing a firm intention to vote (PH) and the proportion which hesitates or has a clear intention to abstain (PL), all of which are weighted against the proportion of those who do not give an indication one way or another, according to the formula: (PH–PL)X(1–PDK/100).

* When we examine the distribution of income in decreasing order within the same sample, a quartile refers to the number of persons whose income represents one quarter of total income. The successive quartiles therefore establish four groups with decreasing income: high, average-high, average-low, low.

© Source: analysis of Eurobarometer 57 (Spring 2002) – Richard Sinnott, University College Dublin


Bullet Democratic Participation and Political Communication in Systems of Multi-Level Governance