Between 23 and 26 May 2019, voters all across Europe went to the polls to cast their vote in a politically charged European election. This election was characterised by the rise of populism, conflicts between EU member states and of course, Brexit.
The 2019 European Elections also saw voter participation increase for the first time since 1979, with 50.6%. This was also an increase of 8 percentage points from the 2014 election.
This paper co-written by the European Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit and the Centre Kantar sur le Futur de l’Europe offers insight into the increase, providing an analysis of the main factors at play across Europe.
First, the holding of related elections in 2019. Eight European Union member states held elections alongside the European elections. Of these eight countries, four (Germany, Lithuania, Romania and Spain) registered large increases in turnout.
Second, the rise of Eurosceptic and populist political parties. Over a fifth of European (22%) stated that media coverage and discussions around Brexit had some kind of impact on their decision as to vote or not. This profound questioning of an increasingly polarised base of voters, with both those wanting to defend the EU and those calling for its destruction flocking to the polls.
Third, two of the socio-demographic groups that demonstrated the largest increase in turnout were those aged 16/18 – 24 and 25 to 39. The rise in these groups, and others, can be connected to the data-based strategy employed by the European Parliament in its 2019 European Election communication campaign.
Whilst disseminating a wide range of information to all Europeans, a dedicated part of the campaign focussed on the so called ‘soft abstainers’ – a subset of the overall population in each country defined as being open to the EU, but at the same time being potentially less likely to vote due to ‘personal’ or ‘technical’ rather than fundamental and ideological reasons.
The Public Opinion Monitoring Unit of the European Parliament and Kantar used Eurobarometer surveys to investigate the media and online habits of the target groups, with the aim of establishing them most effective means and channels of communicating with said groups.
Several results attest the effectiveness of the strategy. Whilst 44% of EU citizens remember having seen, read or heard messages from the European Parliament encouraging them to vote, the proportion reaches 49% among the citizens in the target groups.
What are the challenges for the EU in the next five years?
Eurobarometer data over the past five years clearly shows that many different groups of EU citizens now exist across the EU, expecting and demanding progress on a range of different issues.
For example, the research from this report reveals that the two issues most commonly mentioned as being important to EU citizens are ‘Economy and Growth’ and ‘Combating climate change and protecting the environment.’ Not only are these two issues often conflicting, but also they reveal, broadly speaking, a geographical divide within Europe. Whilst very important to western and northern European citizens, climate change is less mentioned as an important issue to citizens of eastern and southern European countries.
Such a diversification of the demands and interests of voters is an inevitable result of the increase in voter turnout and the politicisation of the EU. Due to the wider base of EU citizens now taking an active interest in European politics, there will be heightened scrutiny on the EU’s policies in the next five years before EE24, which, if not carefully thought through, could easily polarise an already divided public. Thus, arguably the biggest task of the EU in the run up to the next European elections, particularly if voter participation and satisfaction is to continue to increase, will be successfully addressing and reconciling important and divisive issues such as climate change with the demand for economic growth and prosperity.
To do this, it is crucial that the EU is able to demonstrate that it is listening to the demands, thoughts and wishes of all of its citizens, and not just a select few. It is imperative EU citizens feel their voices are being heard. Nevertheless, this should be treated as a welcome challenge rather than shied away from, as increased politicisation and interest in the EU presents a precious opportunity to satisfy more citizens than ever.