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It’s official: the European election turnout was catastrophic

Despite an initial optimistic prognosis, the turnout figures for the May 2014 European parliament elections again show a remorseless decline in voter turnout. But behind the very recently compiled raw data there also hides an unavoidable hypothesis that should set alarm bells shrilly ringing amongst pro-EU activists, writes Tim McNamara, our chief political correspondent.

Not only are some people drawing wrong conclusions from the results, but they are underestimating how bad these results are. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group claimed that “turnout would have been worse if there had not been the Spitzenkandidaten contest”. Whilst, Hannes Swoboda, leader of the social-democrats, said the turnout in this year’s elections was “an endorsement of the European project”.

When the aggregation of exit polls on election night, 25 May, indicated turnout as 43.1%, Jaume Duch Guillot, the Parliament’s chief spokesperson claimed “We are witnessing a historical moment because for the first time since 1979, the long term trend of declining turnout has been reversed,” This overconfident claim, was based on the belief that the turnout, in reality, had stayed the same. It appears the Parliament funded a Euro 16 million ‘get the vote out’ campaign, to little or no effect.

One could argue that the rate of decline since the first direct elections to the European parliament is gradually slowing and the drop between 2009 and 2014 is so marginal as to be insignificant (i.e. 43% to 42.54%). Yet, claims by Swoboda and the like are inanely simplistic, because it fails to take into account what motivates some voters.

To support Swoboda’s thesis, one would have to assume that each and every voter was motivated to vote because of a positive view of the EU’s activities and/or structures and thus can be viewed an endorsement. However, it is patently obvious that the reverse is partially true. A significant number of the voters were motivated to vote, it seems, because they opposed most if not all of the achievements, aims and aspirations of the ‘European project’.

Both UKIP (up from 13 MEPs to 24 MEPs) and the Front National in France (up from 3 MEPs to 24 MEPs) were highly successful in garnering the votes of those disaffected by the European Union. Both parties were the biggest victors in their respective countries. They were able to convert Euro-sceptic votes from other parties as well as tapping into (and motivating) those who don’t normally vote. A similar outcome in Greece and elsewhere indicates that the phenomenon of rising Euro-scepticism was common in most member states.

After the formation of the party groups it now seems that +/- 25% of the current MEPs can now be categorised as oppositionists to the rather vague concept of the ‘European project’. This is a large increase as compared to the 2004-2009 Parliament. In other words, there has been unarguably a large drop in voter support for the advocates of greater European integration. It is also clear that there has been an indicative rise in the number of people dissatisfied with current EU policies.

To claim that all voters support a political system and thus is an endorsement of current  policies would be like J.F. Kennedy counting Lee Harvey Oswald, the Mafia, Richard M. Nixon and Barry Goldwater as followers on Twitter as a positive thing.

One interesting aspect of the election outcome has been the claim, by Guy Verhofstadt amongst others, that the spitzencandidaten process helped to increase turnout. Yet, this is by no means clear that the process had any political traction for voters in any member state. Even in Jean-Claude Juncker’s home country, where interest in the spitzencandidaten would have been thought to be highest, voter turnout actually declined from 90.7% to 85.5%. In the UK and many other member states, the process was hardly noticed by anybody.

Those in favour of the process will point to Germany, were turnout increased from 43.2% to 48.1%. It does appear that the candidates (especially Juncker and Schulz) did have some profile in the lead-up to election day. However, this can be contrasted with polling data that possibly indicates that changes in German constitutional law allowed for an expression of Euro-scepticism in European elections for the first time.

Most supporters of Alternative for Deutschland (the AfD won 7% of the national vote) and the far-right National Democratic party (NDP gained 1% of the vote) were able to exercise their democratic choice for the first time. Many political commentators in Germany remarked upon the fact that Alliance for Deutschland, as a new party, was gaining support from those previously unconvinced by the merits of voting in European elections. The votes of the NDP and AfD and the other smaller parties match almost exactly the increased votes in the election in Germany.

Notice should also be taken of the voter turnout in member states that do not have a track record of serious Euro-scepticism. In Italy, voter turnout dropped from 65% to 57.2%, whilst in Ireland it declined from 58.6% to 52.4%. It should be recalled that the five star movement in Italy did not campaign on a Euro-sceptic platform.  In nearly all of the newer member states there was also a notable decline in turnout.

Based on psephological data, one can safely draw the conclusion, that only a little over 30% of those eligible to vote in member states, voted based on a positive view of the European Union. It can further be argued that support for the European Union has declined by at least 10% since the last European election in 2009.

In the same period, polling data published by the highly respected Eurobarometer surveys, show a decline in the positive image of the European Union by citizens from 45% to 35%. These outcomes can only be described as catastrophic and to pretend anything else is foolhardy in the extreme.

This year’s European elections were, in no way, an endorsement of ‘the European project’ or even the spitzenkandidaten process. If one believes the opposite then the Gods are well on the way to destroying you.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.

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