The European Parliament (EP) election in 2019 has surprised many observers and analysts. For the first time since 1979, overall voter turnout increased compared to the previous EP election, yielding the highest participation rate (50.66%) in the past 25 years. However, despite the stark increase in turnout, the participation level in European elections is still considerably lower than in national elections. This so-called ‘Euro gap’, which usually varies between 15 and 25 percentage points, can be seen as highly problematic for the EU’s democratic legitimacy. After all, turnout is still ‘commonly regarded as one major indicator of the health of a democracy, reflecting trust and confidence in the political system’ (Norris 1997: 281). How can we explain why so many people persistently participate in elections on the national but not on the European level?
This question addresses the behaviour of so-called ‘EU-only abstainers’ who go to the polls in national elections but decide to abstain in EP elections. Interestingly, this group of voters has been rarely studied so far and represents a critical blind spot in the EP election literature. ‘EU-only abstainers’ matter, because the two most prominent explanatory approaches in the field disagree about the motivation of their behaviour. On the one hand, the traditional ‘second-order elections’ (SOE) framework implies that these people stay at home because they perceive European electoral contests as less important than national elections. On the other hand, the more recently developed ‘Europe matters’ (EM) model suggests that ‘EU-only abstention’ is driven by negative attitudes towards the EU and its institutions. Hence, contrasting the two approaches means asking whether the ‘EU-only abstainers’ are motivated by indifference towards (European) politics or by Eurosceptic attitudes.
In my recent article in Politics I answer this question by analysing voter survey data of the 2019 European Election Studies. The analysis reveals that ‘EU-only abstention’ is mainly driven by low levels of general political interest and EU-specific political sophistication. However, it is also caused by distrust towards EU institutions. All three factors exert stronger effects on ‘EU-only abstention’ than on ‘ordinary abstention’, indicating that they rather lead to differential participation than general non-participation. Therefore, the ‘Euro gap’ appears to result from two distinct phenomena. First, it is caused by the widespread perception that there is ‘less at stake’ during EP elections and, second, it is an aggregate-level consequence of individual Eurosceptic attitudes among the electorate. These findings contribute to our understanding of present-day European elections, as they underline the continuing relevance of the SOE framework but also show the increasing importance of the EM approach.