The future of the left since 1884

European elections: Voter turnout and democratic burnout

In 1989, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany had a campaign spot for the European elections which showed a group of young people full of optimism about the potential of Europe. Although it may appear a bit cheesy from...


In 1989, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany had a campaign spot for the European elections which showed a group of young people full of optimism about the potential of Europe. Although it may appear a bit cheesy from today’s perspective, it had everything a good campaign broadcast needs to have: it was motivating, positive, showed clearly what the SPD stood for and was, in short, inspirational. The spot never made it to the UK, and sadly, no commitment to Europe by any Labour party leader has ever been as clear.

Since the first European parliamentary elections in 1979, turnout in the UK has been constantly among the lowest within the European Union, ranging between 32 per cent in 1979 and 38.9 per cent in 2004, with an all-time low in 1999, where only 24 per cent voted. Among countries without compulsory suffrage, turnout is highest in Italy (though participation has fallen from 85 per cent in 1979 to 65 per cent in 2009). Only in some East European countries was the turnout lower, with Slovakia only turning out 16 per cent of voters in 2004.

The reasons for this are of course complex; the Italian academic Giandomenico Majone points out that as long as voters and the majority of their elected representatives reject the idea of a European federation, they are unlikely to participate in its democratic processes; however, as long as they do not participate in them, the results will lack democratic legitimacy.

Eurosceptics like to point to what they call Europe’s ‘undemocratic’ governance structures. Whilst it is true that the European institutions need to do more to improve their transparency and increase accountability the real problem is in fact not a lack of democracy, but of voter education. It appears that many voters are misinformed about the powers of the European parliament, and how they affect their lives. It’s time to take a closer look at both.

The European parliament acts as guardian of democracy. Together with the European council, it is the co-legislator of almost all European legislation, it supervises or amends the work of the European Commission, holds it to account and supervises its budget.  It also has the power to approve and block legislation. Given the scope of European legislation, which, apart from having a significant impact on Europe’s financial system,  ranges from laws on consumer rights, the environment, international trade, regional economic development and worker’s rights, it is surprising and worrying how little attention voters pay to who gets sent to represent them.

European commissioners, whose tasks can broadly be compared to those of national ministers, are appointed by the European president, but have to be approved by the European parliament before taking office. It is not surprising that British voters find the power that is bestowed on commissioners often bemusing at best, as the majority of British ministers are directly elected MPs, in addition to those sitting in the House of Lords. In Germany for example, ministers can often be appointed from a field of non-parliamentary experts, which may explain the more relaxed attitude to European governmental structures. In Germany, however, on average over 50 per cent of registered voters show up to vote for the European elections.

Europe’s biggest democratic deficit is not caused by its structures, but by the lack of voter turnout. Political disengagement is a constant challenge, and one that offers no simple solution. The introduction of general compulsory suffrage would be a radical move, though turnout in Belgium (on average 91 per cent) and Luxembourg (on average 89 per cent) indicate that it would efficient.

A less intrusive approach would require a commitment from the political establishment supporting stronger voter education. The timid style of campaigns in previous elections appear to indicate that even pro-Europeans in the UK tend to shy away from this, afraid it seems to underline the significant role European legislation plays in Britain. A cross-party campaign from the three major parties encouraging turnout could be effective, although this seems unlikely, given the lack of enthusiasm for Europe on the Conservative backbenches and the attitude of the British press towards Europe (I wrote about this in my last blog). So Labour should take the first and courageous step and dedicate money, time and political capital to the European elections in May, and convince its supporters to turn up and exercise their democratic rights.

Like it or not, the European parliament matters, and given the soft-power and influence it holds in the world, its appeal can be phenomenal.  I am reminded of a scene in the third season of the West Wing, where White House Press secretary C.J. Gregg, taking stage at a “Rock the Vote” rally famously shouts that “decisions are made by those who show up”. She is right of course.  It is up to the British public, and its elected representatives, whether they want to be part of the decision.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.