The 2019 European Elections – Voter Turnout, Expectations and Voting Systems

By Moritz Osterhuber

Between 23 and 26 May 2019 approximately 350 Million voters are eligible to vote for the next European Parliament, making it the largest transnational election on the globe. Sluggish growth, climate change and international trade conflicts are only some of the reasons why the stakes in this year’s elections are particularly high. At the same time, there is a fierce debate about the EU’s future, whose supranational powers are far from unchallenged. In the run-up to the elections, BridgeEurope presents the most important party groups, candidates and policy platforms. We also look at some of the decisive issues that Europe faces today and how they shape the parties’ campaigns, their electoral prospects and the future of the Union more broadly. 



 Source: European Parliament 


The Lasting Issues of Low Voter Turnout and Democratic Legitimacy 

By national standards, very few people will go to the polls in May. Young people in particular have failed to vote in European elections in the past, as registered turnouts among youth were below the 30% mark in 2009 and 2014 respectively. In 2014, overall voter turnout reached a disappointing 42.6%, marking another low point after only 43% in 2009. While the first elections in 1979 still mobilised 62% of eligible voters, the four decades that were to come saw a steady decline. 

Much has changed since 1979. The EU built a common market, introduced a currency shared by 19 of its members and became a political union. The early consensus on European integration, however, has clearly vanished. Ratification of an EU Constitution failed in 2005 after 54.7% of French and 61.5% of Dutch voters expressed their opposition in referenda. Following the 2008 crisis, turmoil in financial markets and the banking sector was met with rigorous austerity measures vis-à-vis indebted countries. Communities across the continent were hit hard. As youth unemployment rates exceeded 40% in Greece, Spain and Italy, critique and in some cases resentment toward politics in Brussels started to build. Issues related to sovereignty and migration additionally fueled Euro-skepticism that proliferated to the extent that Britain voted to leave the union in 2016. 


The Lisbon Treaty and a New Idea to Increase Turnout

Many argue that the EU suffers from a democratic legitimacy crisis as a result of the low voter turnout (exemplified by a historic low point of 13% in Slovakia in 2014). The principal argument is that low participation excludes some societal groups and leads to a parliament that fails to proportionately represent the citizens’ interests. The EU has long identified the problem and made enhancing democratic legitimacy a core principle in the Preamble of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The treaty enhanced the legislative and oversight powers of the European Parliament, reformed qualified majority voting in the Council and strengthened the institutions’ engagement with citizens.

After 2014, the relatively informal Spitzenkandidatenprocedure was introduced, whereby party groups nominate a lead candidate for Commission President. These new figureheads are intended to spearhead a European debate, publicise policy positions and increase turnout. Despite the changes agreed upon in Lisbon, turnout remained low. The Spitzenkandidatenprocedure is unlikely to single-handedly succeed in considerably raising turnout and solving the Union’s legitimacy problems. Moreover, ambitious candidates in the background are undermining the new procedure. Michel Barnier, for instance, is poised to replace the EPP’s lead candidate Manfred Weber should he prove unacceptable for potential future coalition partners. 

Despite all critique, given the influence of the Parliament in the co-decision making procedure and its track record of advancing participatory elements and promoting oversight, European citizens have a decisive role to play in EU policy-making. And many citizens realise that. As shown in the graph, there are clear majorities for more EU intervention in policy areas including counter-terrorism measures, environmental protection and unemployment. The scope of citizens’ expectations alone underscores the importance of the elections. 



Source: EPRS based on Eurobarometer


Voting Systems across the Union 

It is a European election, yet, we see remarkable diversity in how people choose their representatives, as voting systems have largely remained a national prerogative. According to Article 1 of a Council Decision in 2002, suffrage must be universal and voting needs to be proportional, free, secret and direct. This leaves much levy for national rules.

Much of Western Europe, including Portugal, Spain, the UK, France and Germany, has closed lists whereby voters elect a party list but cannot change the order of candidates. Scandinavia, the Benelux, and much of Central and Southern Europe favour preferential voting that enables voters to either choose candidates from different lists or change their order on any given list. Finally, Ireland is an outlier in following a more complicated single transferrable vote (STV) system, in which electors have one vote but may indicate various preferred candidates*.

National rules also differ in terms of candidates’ minimum age and the threshold that parties need to reach. While in most countries the minimum age for candidates is 18, contenders in Italy and Greece need to be at least 25 years old. Formal thresholds for parties to enter parliament range from 5% in France to none at all in Germany (a mathematical minimum still applies). The legal voting age is more uniform across the Union with only Greece, Austria and Malta permitting young people under the age of 18 to participate. How citizens may cast their ballot also differs widely across EU Member States. Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg have all made it compulsory to vote. Notably, there is no universal right to vote from abroad. Effectively, most of the Irish, Maltese, Czech and Slovakian citizens living in another Member State can therefore only cast their vote in their home country. 

All these differences mean that the European elections are an unwieldy conglomerate of national rules.

All these differences mean that the European elections are an unwieldy conglomerate of national rules. EU citizens vote for national parties and candidates instead of European ones. How these national parties then come together in party groups in the European Parliament is not straightforward and can seem opaque or intransparent. This may just be one of the reasons why some citizens feel detached from politics in Brussels. After all, for the majority of people the reality is that neither the Spitzenkandidaten like Manfred Weber (EPP) or Frans Timmermans (S&D) nor their parties appear on the ballot. The most vocal proponent for change in this respect has been French President Emmanuel Macron, whose proposal of transnational pan-European lists got rejected by an EPP-led majority in the European Parliament back in 2018. For now, the EU seems confident that deputies from national parties make good European lawmakers. This dynamic, however, gives rise to an old controversy with new relevance in the times of Brexit: the distribution of seats in the European Parliament.

How Brexit Causes Electoral Headaches

The allocation of currently 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is a traditional bone of contention and a tale almost as old as time. While the distribution of seats is generally determined by a country’s share of the entire EU population, small countries such as Malta, Luxembourg or Latvia are overrepresented in order to recognise their role in decision-making. The biggest chunk (56%) of the European Parliament is made up of representatives from Germany (96), France (74), the UK (73), Italy (73), Spain (54) and Poland (51). In June 2018, the Council already agreed on a post-Brexit seating arrangement, which foresees that the number of MEPs will be reduced from 751 to 705. The rest of the seats currently held by UK deputies will be transferred to other countries (France, Italy and Spain are among the beneficiaries). However, the fact that Westminster was unable to agree on Brexit now causes headaches for these countries. The UK is set to participate in May’s elections and the parliament keeps its current national composition until the UK leaves the EU. This means that beneficiaries of seat transfers must amend national electoral laws. France, for instance, needs to find a procedure to elect 79 representatives of which only 74 will be assigned seats and five will remain in a type of waiting position until the UK leaves the EU. Only two weeks before people cast their ballots, the French National Assembly is still deliberating possible options, while the National Census Commission will assign the seats on May 30th.

The European Union was born out of a remarkable idea after hate, war and unprecedented atrocities had plunged the continent into disaster.

The Future and the Past

The European Union was born out of a remarkable idea after hate, war and unprecedented atrocities had plunged the continent into disaster. Courageous statesmanship subsequently led to reconciliation, rapprochement and the longest period of sustained peace in Europe’s history. Today, the European Union is more than a peace project. It has become an economic, a political and in some respects also a socio-cultural union. These new dimensions naturally gave rise to new questions and debates about the EU’s nature and future that now involve 28 countries. Critical voices have become more prominent and those that seek to abolish it have proliferated. This year’s elections present a chance to shape the future of the EU according to the citizens’ interests. The parties’ campaigns in the run-up can inform and politicise European societies. This, however, can only be done in an inclusive and representative fashion if we have a European-wide salient debate and if voter turnout is sufficiently high. For this to happen, a much greater proportion of young Europeans needs to be included in the democratic process. This starts by casting a ballot in May 2019 for the European Elections. 


*If the first-choice-candidate of any given Irish voter is elected with a surplus of votes or didn’t reach the necessary (mathematical) quota to enter the EP, the surplus votes initially assigned to that candidate are then transferred chronologically to the rest of the preferred candidates indicated by the voter.