On the road to the European election 2019 — How trust affects turnouts

By Dániel Csetri, Jana Karasová, Laura Buschhaus, Leonard Kehnscherper, Nina Francelová

The next elections to the European Parliament in 2019 are going to shape the EU’s way probably more than ever. By then, more than 300 million EU citizens will be eligible to vote for their preferred strategy, that is supposed to tackle the EU’s financial and social problems.

However, what is shaping the election results probably as much as any other political issue, is the turnout. When — like in the past — not even half of the eligible voters participate in the electoral process, results may look very different than the actual opinion of the EU population. By explaining low participation rates one main factor comes into play: trust.

Let us therefore have a look on the trust level development and voter participation in the EU — bearing the forthcoming elections in mind.

Between 2004 and 2014 not only the trust but also the turnout in the European Union sank in average. In most of the countries the trust rates are higher than the turnout rates.

To spot the differences between the member states let’s analyse the cases of Slovakia, Belgium, Malta, Luxembourg, Sweden and Greek.

Trusting but not voting in Slovakia

European Parliament elections are least popular in Slovakia. Those to the National Parliament usually gain the most attention. There, turnout used to be slightly under 60 percent, followed by the presidential election, in which usually vote around 40 percent of Slovaks in first round and about 50 percent in the second round. The National Parliament election in Slovakia took place in 2010 as well as in 2012 after the government`s downfall.

Most Slovaks stated economic growth and the question of unemployment among the main reasons for them to participate in the EP elections 2009 and 2014, according to the Eurobarometer survey. In 2009, more than one third of the asked Slovaks responded that they decided not to participate in the election, because of their low trust in politics or dissatisfaction with politics in general. In 2014, the most popular answer was, that Slovaks were simply just not interested. Moreover, almost half of Slovaks did not have an opinion about the question, if the EU membership is a good or a bad thing and if they feel tied or less tied with the EU.

Despite the weak awareness about the EU, Slovaks had high trust in the European Parliament between 2004 and 2009. This trust has started to decrease lately, which is also caused by the speeches of politicians of the most popular Slovak parties, who mainly built their 2016 national election campaigns on migration crisis and their will to “protect Slovaks from migrants”. In results, the Slovak voter turnout rate for the 2014 European elections, was only 13%, the lowest among the EU countries.

The countries where almost everybody is voting

On the other side of the voter turnout rates spectrum, we can find Belgium, Luxembourg and Malta, as these countries have a regular turnout rate higher than 70%. In the case of Belgium and Luxembourg, where there is a long tradition of compulsory voting, it is easy to understand this high participation.

While citizens of Belgium and Luxembourg are enforced to participate in the elections by a law, Malta has decided to use a different motivation — Single Transferable Voting. This electoral system is highly motivating, as every vote counts and influences the choice of five Maltese members of the European Parliament.

Despite this profound electoral systems, all three countries experienced the decreasing voter turnout rates between 2004 and 2014 — like almost all the EU member states except some countries. These include Poland, Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Germany and especially Sweden. This country doesn’t see only the highest increase of voter turnout rate — 13 percentage points, but also an increase in trust in the European Parliament, in contrary to majority of European countries.

The corners of Europe where the turnout is raising

While in 2004, Swedes were among the least trusting in the European Parliament. In 2014, Sweden became the country with the seventh-highest confidence rate. After the 2004 elections, 75% of Swedes participating in the Eurobarometer survey claimed that they felt to be attached to Europe. Despite the fact, that only 49% of them thought that the EU membership is good for their country. A number, that is not so much different from the one coming from Greece, where 43% of Eurobarometer participants agreed with the statement.

Also other figures from Greece are some kind of extraordinary. While the trust rate went down by 28 percentage points between 2009 and 2014, the turnout even increased by more than 7 points in the same time. That means the Greek people don’t trust the European Parliament, but that didn’t lead to a refuse of participation in the elections or a retreat of politics. On the contrary, Greek citizens employed the elections to show their dissatisfaction.

More than 26% of the voters voted for the extreme left party SYRIZA, which promised to resist the demands of troika. In the opinion of the NGO “transform network” therefore the Greeks used this election to solve not only the European policy, but also the Greek crisis. The same could be said for the left-leaning To-Potami-party, which gained 6% of the votes and wanted to change the political system in Greek.

Therefore, Sweden and Greece are exceptions concerning the development of turnout. In the case of Sweden the increase of trust is also different from the other countries, as they are facing the fall of turnout rates as well as the trust rates in the European Parliament.

This trend is likely to continue in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

Less trust, less votes in 2019?

Since 2015 the level of trust strictly decreased and the trend will be continued in the close future, according to available data from Eurostat. Between 2004 and 2009, 15% of the Europeans lost their confidence in the European Parliament. In numbers, it means more than 70 million people, which equals the UKs population.

Additionally, the correlation among the voting willingness and the trust in the European Parliament is visible. In average, each 5% change in trust leads to 1% fail in turnouts. It does not sound much, but if we check from where we started rolling down it becomes obviously how big the problem is. The u-turn line is being crossed in 2017 when more than 50% of the EU citizens say they preferably do not trust in the European Parliament.

As the 2019 elections are coming closer, any action of the European Parliament and its members to increase the trust would be appreciated as it could result in higher voter turnout.

This article was created during the European Youth Media Days in Brussels, October 2017.

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