The European Parliament (EP) is failing to project an image, good or bad, of itself in the minds of over half of Europe’s citizens, the result is a lack of engagement and fall in the number of
people participating in European elections.
However, campaigning raises the visibility of the Parliament, and the more information people have the more positively they feel towards the institution. These are just some of the findings
from a study conducted by the EU-funded CIVICACTIVE project.
Despite the increase in powers of the European Parliament over the years, people are becoming more reluctant to vote when the opportunity arises. Since the first European Parliament elections
in 1979, turn-out has fallen by almost 20 points, from 66% to 48% in 2004. These figures are based on reported voting numbers and take into account the changing membership of the European
Union, from 9 Member States in 1979 to 25 Member States in 2004.
The study looked at the factors that affect citizens participating in European Parliament elections and in referendums concerning integration issues, national elections, and non-electoral
political and community action. The influence of political parties and the media was also investigated, particularly in relation to the European Parliament elections of 2004.
‘CIVICACTIVE focuses on electoral and non-electoral forms of participation and on the impact on these of political campaigning and of the media. Within this broad compass, the project pays
particular attention to turnout in European Parliament elections and to the effects of gender and disability on political participation,’ explains project coordinator, Professor Richard Sinnott
from University College Dublin.
The study reveals that abstention takes two forms. The first reason that people failed to vote was because it was difficult for them to do so. Typical comments from respondents included,
‘Working double shifts I have no time’ and ‘I had no one to babysit my five children’. A respondent confined to a wheel chair stated, ‘I couldn’t get there, no one came to collect me’.
The second reason that people may not take part in elections is due to a failure to mobilise voters, which is more difficult for policymakers to address. There is, however, scope for the
political parties to motivate the electorate, believe the project partners. Researchers found little difference in the abstention rates between men and women. However, men are more likely to be
voluntary abstainers, whereas women are more likely to abstain because of the circumstances they find themselves in. This might be looking after children, sick relatives or for other similar
‘The project has also shown that voter turnout in European Parliament elections is related to the widespread lack of image of the European Parliament among European citizens. The better
informed people are about the EU the more they are in favour of it and more likely to vote in a European election,’ adds Professor Sinnott.
Indeed, it is estimated that over 60% of European citizens have no image, good or bad, of the European Parliament. The project based this finding on all available survey and aggregate data sets
dealing with EU referendums and elections, aggregated data on participation and choice in European elections, and other related census-based data for all Member States.
The study also showed a very strong relationship between age and civic participation, with people being more likely to vote as they get older. Voters in the under 25 and 25-35 year-old age
groups therefore need to be targeted and encouraged to participate in elections. This can be achieved through giving them better information, suggest the partners of the project.
In addition to the main study, the project developed a dataset of daily media variables relating to key EU themes and a database on indicators of participation. Variations in the structure of
governance at EU, national, regional and local level were also examined. This aspect of the project generated a dataset of indicators for mobilising and facilitating voters across 25 countries.
The indicators aim to give a better understanding of what is going on in each country and show what can be changed, thus helping to implement the right policies. Indicators include the time of
voting, the type of ballot and whether advanced voting is possible.
These indicators reveal that postal and advanced voting could contribute to higher turnouts for European elections. Other initiatives that could facilitate voting include increasing the number
of polling stations or extending their opening times. Elections should also be held on a day of the week when the population is most likely to vote. The summer should be avoided for elections
because people are away on holiday and go out more, resulting in a lower turnout.
The lessons learned during the study are expected to provide a better scientific understanding of the factors promoting and inhibiting civic participation. It is hoped that the results will be
used as the basis for designing policies.
‘The findings of our study are directly relevant to policy-makers, political leaders and political activists concerned with the problems of political participation of various kinds and in all
sectors of society. How much impact the findings will have depends on the thoroughness of our dissemination of the findings and on the responsiveness of those whose task it is to nurture
participation,’ underlines Professor Sinnott.
‘From the point of view of having an impact on future policy, it is vital that the existence of the project and its website be brought to the attention of the relevant people, ‘ he adds
The results of the study, as well as results from the latest EUROBAROMETER surveys concerning perceptions and knowledge of the power and role of the European Parliament, were brought to the
attention of policymakers at a recent conference entitled ‘People and Parliament in the European Union in the Context of 2009 Elections’.
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