Keys to Understanding Abstention in the European Elections

Keys to Understanding Abstention in the European Elections


Participation in the recent European elections has been of only 45.5%. This paper looks at the causes, and at some of the implications, of such a high level of abstention.


The extremely high level of abstention in the recent European elections raises numerous questions as to the level of public interest in the process of European integration. That voter abstention is a problem of prime importance is obvious but, for whom? For the European parliament? For national governments? For political parties? For the citizens themselves? This paper looks at some of the more plausible hypotheses that can satisfactorily explain the phenomenon of abstention in the European elections, concluding that it cannot be attributed exclusively to public rejection of the process of European integration. It also argues that the ease with which national governments and political parties lay the blame on European institutions and the very process of European integration clashes with the fact that it is those same governments and political parties that make up Europe’s institutions and drive the integration process in the first place. Finally, we draw attention to the negative after-effects of these elections on the ratification of the European Constitution.


The most significant feature of the recent European elections was, without a doubt, the high level of abstention (54.5%). It is obviously worrying that a clear majority of Europe’s citizens have decided not to exercise their right to be represented in the European Parliament; more so when it is no quirk of fate, but an unmistakable trend stretching back to the very first direct elections to the Parliament (see Graph 1).

However, beyond noting that abstention is an important phenomenon, there is very little consensus on its causes and consequences. It is highly revealing that the greater the powers wielded by the European parliament, the less Europeans are willing to vote. To this extent it is the parliament itself, and its legitimacy in legislating for its constituents, that is clearly the greatest loser. That said, as usually occurs in almost all elections, the views on the causes and consequences of this indifference range, self-interestedly, from those who argue for a speedier integration to those who would like to abruptly halt the process or even roll it back. How, therefore, should this high level of abstention be interpreted?

In the first place, in this as in all elections, observers tend to forget that results reflect little more than the sum of the individual preferences of million of voters who do not act in coordination but on the basis of widely varying preferences. Even when people try to vote strategically (placing their vote according to how they think others will vote), their chances of being successful are slim. More often than not, the result is the exact opposite of what they wanted. So, even if they wanted to, it would be difficult for voters to send clear ‘messages’ that can be easily interpreted.

Moreover, in European elections the national political contexts in which voting takes place are so varied that it is well nigh impossible to discern a single trend. It should not be forgotten that European elections are not only atypical in that people are electing national representatives for a supranational parliament but also that, in contrast to other elections, they do not result in an executive government but only in ‘representation’ and, indirectly, in legitimacy. This does not mean that direct elections for president of the European Commission would necessarily raise voter interest (indeed, increasing the distance between the voter and the person elected could even be counterproductive), but it cannot be ignored that Europeans are not used to voting for representatives in a process that is completely divorced from the selection of those who will govern them.

The fact that European elections are ‘second tier’ affairs, in which the issue of government is not at stake, means that many voters see them as a good opportunity to punish their own governments for purely domestic reasons. It was no fluke that the ruling governments of the four most populated States of the Union (the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany), together with numerous other countries (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and the Czech Republic) suffered massive election defeats. That European elections are, as the pundits say, ‘counter-cyclical’ is of considerable relevance to the relationship between the Council and the parliament, as it means that the political persuasion of parliament will almost always be the opposite of that of the Council when it comes to crucial decisions such as appointing the President of the Commission or approving legislation on the co-decision procedure. In practice, the twin-sided legitimacy sought for certain important decisions in the European Union can easily become a double-headed problem.

Going back to abstention, there can be little doubt that many of those who voted in the European elections did not do so not as ‘good Europeans’, conscious of their civic duty to contribute to the building of Europe, but because they saw a ready opportunity to punish their own national governments. Alternatively, they were voting to defend their governments against the opposition. In neither case were European interests their principal concern. Some of this was evident in Spain, where there is much doubt as to whether those who turned out on 13June were inspired by an admirable spirit of Eurocentrism or by a desire to reinforce their political party of choice in what was widely considered a second round of the polemical general elections held on 14March. Albeit poles apart from current visions of Europe, neither of the slogans adopted by the two main parties, “With You We Shall be Strong in Europe” and “Back to Europe”, left any doubt that the election was a national, rather than a European, issue even in a country such as Spain, where practically no one questions European integration.

So, most voters cast their ballot papers for domestic rather than European motives, a fact which undermines the argument that those who failed to vote on June 11-13 were largely Eurosceptics, signalling their rejection of European integration. The figure which probably best illustrates the difficulty of interpreting correctly what abstainers were after is the voter turnout in the United Kingdom –38.9%–an increase in Europe’s traditionally most Eurosceptic country on 1999’s 24.0%. Obviously it is possible here, too, to interpret the higher turnout in purely domestic terms (as an opportunity for penalising the Labour Party for the war in Iraq). However, the higher level of participation can also be attributed to the fact that in these elections British voters were offered the opportunity to support an openly Eurosceptic party in the shape of the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), which calls on Britain to withdraw from Europe.

In reality, what the increase in the Eurosceptic vote throughout the EU actually shows is that European elections offer voters a good (and highly legitimate) opportunity to express their disagreement with the European Union. This is certainly how the British saw the election, with the UKIP, on a platform of withdrawal from Europe, won 16.48% of the vote and twelve MEPs. But it was also the case in Sweden, where a Europhobic party of recent origin, Junilistan, took 14% of the vote; in Belgium, where the Vlaams Blok won 14.3%; and, lastly, in Poland, where the Eurosceptic parties also had a field day. The fact that, notwithstanding, in Denmark and Austria the respective Eurosceptic parties, the June Movement and the extreme right-wing party of Joerg Haïder, suffered electoral setbacks only goes to show that Euroscepticism in Europe is certainly not homogenous, and that it is also heavily influenced by national issues.

So, given that there are reasons to be cautious about the statement that the turnout in the recent European elections reflects the level of support for European integration, it would be as well to admit, equally, that not all abstainers can be classified as Eurosceptics, particularly when in all EU countries voters had the opportunity to cast their ballots for clearly anti-establishment or Eurosceptic political parties. Undoubtedly, it would be wrong to suppose that Euroscepticism is limited to those who vote for such parties, but, by the same token, it is reasonable to assume that such parties are capable of mobilising their supporters to a greater extent in European elections than domestic polls. In actual fact, as shown in Graph 2, the percentage of support for European integration has remained low but stable over the past few years.

To be sure, the EU has not properly recovered from the legitimacy crisis that has dogged it since the halcyon days of 1991, when support for membership was over 70%, but, equally, the problem does not appear to have deteriorated in line with the falling turnouts in the last two European elections. As shown in Graph 2, the percentage of Eurosceptics or opponents of integration remains stable at approximately 15%. What is more significant is that nearly a third of Europeans (31%) are undecided on the issue: they are the pragmatists who judge the Union more by what it does and, particularly, what it does not do, than on what it says it does or is. Their opinions of the Union are essentially instrumental and are based more on effectiveness than on identity or sentiment. Be that as it may, most inhabitants of the European Union, 57%, see themselves as Europeans from the point of view of identity, meaning that there is still considerable leeway for designing and implementing common policies.

There are therefore many arguments for denying that the 55% of Europeans who failed to vote in the recent elections are militant Eurosceptics. This means that abstention can be attributed to two equally plausible causes: voter ignorance or voter indifference.

As for ignorance, euphemistically called ‘lack of information’, it is true that the quantity and quality of the information provided by national governments and European institutions, particularly on the way the EU works, leave much to be desired. However, the conventional idea of what information is required to enable people to vote sensibly is very often unrealistic and should be ratcheted down several notches. Clearly the minimum voter competence for exercising an informed vote does not extend to an exhaustive knowledge of the internal mechanisms governing the operation of the European Union, something that few people, even the experts, understand in detail. What people should have, however, is an idea of the major options available and the interests at stake in each election, information that is relatively easily accessible in campaign periods from political parties and the media. In this way, in any election the voters can obtain the minimum amount of information necessary to know where their interests lie and who defends them best. On that basis they decide whether or not to vote and, if so, which way.

The problem is that the institutions in which citizens place least confidence are precisely national political parties and governments –according to the Eurobarometer 61/2004, shown in Graph 3, only 16% of Europeans trust national political parties, and only 30% trust their national governments, whereas 41% of people trust the European Union–. As Graph 4 reveals, this tendency is even more marked in the new member States, where confidence in parties, governments and national parliaments is even lower than it is in EU-15, while the level of trust placed in the European Union (41%) is way above that granted domestic institutions. So, the high abstention among the new members should not be attributed entirely to the European Union, particularly when we see that voter turnout in these countries is especially low even in domestic elections. In blaming the EU rather than national parties and governments for low voter turnouts, what we are probably doing is, as the saying goes, shooting the pianist.

It would therefore be fairer, and nearer the truth, to assume that voters are always right, are more intelligent than they are given credit for and rarely err in identifying their true interests. In other words, indifference, reflected in voter abstention, might conceivably reflect alienation from the political system, with voters feeling that their interests are not represented by any of the parties running. But it could also be caused by a ‘benign’ indifference, where voters simply feel that their individual interests are not at stake. Something of the sort can be seen if we compare the central issues of the European Union over the last two years (enlargement and the Constitution), with the list of concerns of the average voter. According to the Eurobarometer 61/2004, the fieldwork for which was conducted in the run-up to the June elections, the three main concerns of Europeans were, in this order, unemployment, immigration and organised crime. The obvious question is what the European Union is doing with respect to each of these matters in a way which Europeans can clearly see as effective. The answer is ‘not much.’ What if, after having taken the trouble to inform themselves sufficiently to make a rational decision, European voters decided to stay away from the polls in vast numbers because in this election campaign the issues that affected their most basic interests were not at risk? Graph 5 shows clearly that the two matters on which the Union has employed almost all its political capital over the past two years (enlargement and institutional reform) rank very low on the list of citizen concerns.

Seen from this standpoint, abstention certainly is a problem, particularly when we are immersed in the process of ratifying a draft Constitution, a process which looks like being long and arduous and which, despite enjoying general majority support, has signally failed to rouse much popular enthusiasm as it appears to be divorced from what voters consider their main concerns. After the latest election results, no government will have an easy job deciding whether to call a referendum to ratify the Constitution, when in all probability the level of abstention will be high, with a good chance of a negative vote, or adopt the alternative policy of ignoring the indifference of the electorate by not holding a referendum, at the risk of further undermining the legitimacy of the integration process.

José Ignacio Torreblanca

Department of Political Science and Administration, UNED

Appendix: Results of the European elections of 11-13 June 2004