Election The 2014 European Elections and Central and Eastern Europe: The End of the Affair?

In 2004, eight Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) and two Mediterranean countries entered the European Union (EU). Hailed by some as the “New Europe”, the CEECs seemed to have finally affirmed their European identity. Ten years later, one is naturally tempted to examine whether the CEECs’ EU membership has indeed made them more “European”.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 17, 2014

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“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”

(Graham Greene (1951) The End of the Affair)

In 2004, eight Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia – and two Mediterranean countries – Cyprus and Malta – entered the European Union (EU). Hailed by some as the “New Europe”[1] and having been subject to broad changes throughout the pre-accession, the CEECs seemed to have finally affirmed their European identity, at least in the sense that they had finally become members of one of the most exclusive West European economic institutions. Ten years later, one is naturally tempted to examine whether the CEECs’ EU membership has indeed made them more “European”. Have the citizens of the CEECs become integrated in the emerging European polity? Have they become more involved and do they participate to a greater extent in the European politics than upon their accession?

The voter turnout in the 2014 European elections was lower than ever in the CEECs. This raises the question of how the Central and Eastern Europeans view the role of the European Parliament and the role of the EU. In this commentary, I would like to suggest that the “New Europeans” were staunch believers in the idea of a united Europe throughout the 1990s and probably even in the early 2000s, but seeing that the EU can neither guarantee the national security in their neighbourhood, nor significantly increase the domestic welfare, the Central and Eastern Europeans are probably falling out of love with the EU.

Ten years ago

As the Europeanization literature has described it in detail, the CEECs were subject to a deep and broad process of adjustment to the EU acquis (the body of all the EU rules) and the European democratic and human rights norms throughout the pre-accession period that stretched from approximately 1998 to 2004[2]. The countries were thoroughly monitored by the European Commission which issued yearly reports in which the CEECs were “shamed and named” as well as in which their “homework” was outlined. Surely, one could reason, this deep and unprecedented scrutiny had to change the mode of how the politics were run in the newly democratized regimes.

While the transition literature had studied thoroughly the deep distrust in the politics and the politicians in the CEECs, at least in one aspect the citizens seemed to agree with their politicians. When observing the table 1 which outlines the voters support for their country’s EU membership in the national referenda in 2003, one tends to notice the very high levels of support. If Swedish voters were split regarding the question of Sweden’s EU membership in 1994[3], no such deep divisions seemed to be present in the national referenda in the Central and Eastern Europe. The numbers of support were not lower than 60%; indeed, the lowest support for the country’s EU membership was recorded in Estonia where “only” 66.8% of voters supported Estonia’s EU membership. The record high support was in Slovakia where 93.7% of the electorate voted resoundingly for the country’s membership in the EU.

Table 1: Support (per cent) for the EU membership in the national referenda in 2003[4]
Country Support for the country’s EU membership (per cent) Turnout in referendum on the country’s EU membership (per cent)
Czech Republic 77.3 55.21
Estonia 66.8 64.1
Hungary 83.8 45.6
Latvia 67.5 71.5
Lithuania 91.1 63.4
Poland 77.6 58.9
Slovakia 93.7 52.1
Slovenia 89.61 60.23

The reasons for the high support for the EU by no means were a surprise for anyone who had studied the region’s history. Most of the countries were eager to demonstrate their “Europeanness” (i.e. them being truly European) throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The case of Slovenia is here particularly instructive. According to the Danish political scientist Lene Hansen, the EU membership for Slovenia was connected with the country’s Western European identity – what its politicians claimed their country was – and the country’s aspirations – what its politicians wanted Slovenia to be, viz. a “democratic, free and prosperous” country[5]. Indeed, one could argue that most of the Central and Eastern Europeans believed that the EU membership would lead to a higher domestic welfare, which was an argument often repeated in the public EU-referenda campaigns throughout the 2003.

In the countries close to Russia, the EU was seen as one of the guarantees of “soft” security (while the NATO embodied the “hard” security guarantees). Even if the EU demanded changes in the domestic legislation regarding the rights and treatment of the ethnic minorities in Latvia, which was domestically seen as a politically sensitive issue, the changes were implemented, despite the initial opposition. As the American political scientist Mark Jubulis noted, the “continued perception that Russia is the greatest potential threat to Latvian independence serves to push Latvia into the arms of the West”[6]. Both ideational (i.e. identity) and material (security end economic welfare) motives were widely discussed during the pre-referenda campaigns and there seemed to be a political consensus on the EU membership.

The numbers of voter turnout were the only reason for bitterness in the 2003 national referenda on membership in the EU. On average, only 58.88% of Central and Eastern Europeans turned out to vote on their country’s EU membership. The lowest number was recorded in Hungary where only 45.6% participated in the referendum in which 83.8% voted for Hungary’s membership in the EU. The highest turnout was recorded in Latvia where 71.5% of registered voters showed up to cast their vote. The relatively low turnout raises the question of how the voters in Central and Eastern Europe in fact perceived the EU and their own role in making the decision about their country’s membership in the EU. Moreover, it seems that it had also a certain, if you will, formative influence on the voters that later participated to a much lower degree in the European elections.

Decline in the voter turnout: A worrying signal?

Considering the 2014 European elections, I argue that the turnout (i.e. how many voters, in fact, participated in the elections) is a more important variable than the actual election result (i.e. what parties and candidates were elected). In my opinion, the turnout data can serve as an indicator of both how the Central and Eastern Europeans perceive the legitimacy of the European Parliament (and the EU, in general) and how they see their role in the European politics (i.e. degree of empowerment).

Generally, the turnout has been declining in the EU (see table 2) from 45.47% in 2007 to 43.09% in 2014. However, the decline is not evenly distributed among all the EU member states. While more than half of the “old” member states’ citizens cast their vote in the European elections, less than a third of electorate does so in the CEECs. In fact, decline in turnout in the European elections is much more dramatic in Central and Eastern Europe (from 31.19% in 2004 to 27.06% in 2014) than in the Western Europe (from 52.7% in 2004 to 52.43% in 2014). Some more optimistic analysts might argue that these low turnout numbers could be explained with the post-Communist legacies and the general distrust in the political institutions. To some extent I am willing to accept this line of argument. Indeed, the turnout has historically been lower by 20 per cent points in the CEECs than in the EU-15. Still, the drop from 31.96% in 2009 to 27.06% in 2014 is too unexpected to be ignored as “just” an effect of historic legacies in the Central and Eastern Europe.

Table 2: Turnout (per cent) in the European elections in the CEECs, 2004-2014[7]
Countries 2004 2009 2014
Czech Republic 28.3 28.22 19.5
Estonia 26.83 43.9 36.4
Hungary 38.5 36.31 28.92
Latvia 41.34 53.7 30.04
Lithuania 48.38 20.98 44.91
Poland 20.87 24.53 22.7
Slovakia 16.97 19.64 13.0
Slovenia 28.35 28.37 20.96
EU-8 31.19 31.96 27.06
EU-15 52.7 52.72 52.43
EU 45.47 43 43.09

In general, political scientists should be careful in interpreting the turnout numbers. After all, the turnout in the elections might be dependent on such trivial conditions as rain on the Election Day[8]. One should be careful before trumpeting the decline of 4 percentage points as an indication that legitimacy of the European political system is declining in the CEECs. Nevertheless, there are at least two reasons for why this decline should be interpreted as a worrying signal that Central and Eastern Europeans sent to Brussels.

First, the recent decline in voter turnout is dramatic, because the overall turnout has been steady around 31% in both 2004 and 2009. In other words, the turnout has historically been low (even if it had been more or less stable) in the CEECs and therefore a further drop is even more worrying. In short, it seems that the Central and East European voters, throughout the last decade, have not developed a political identity and behavior comparable to their West European co-citizens.

Second, in half of the countries (namely, in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia), the turnout is lower than the CEECs’ average score (27.06%). The most dramatic case is Slovakia where turnout was only 13%. If only every tenth voter shows up to cast her vote in a high-income OECD country, it should ring an alarm bell even for the most pro-European politicians that something is terribly wrong.

Third, in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, and Slovenia, the change in turnout from 2004 to 2014 has been dramatic (more than 5 percentage points), and, in Latvia, the change was the highest (11.3 percentage points). What could lead to such an increase in abstaining from exercising one’s civic duty?

Legitimacy, foreign policy or economy?

The drop in the voter turnout in the 2014 European elections in the CEECs leads us to examine some preliminary hypothesis about the factors that could explain the negative change. As I indicated above, drop in the voter turnout could be interpreted as a decline in legitimacy of the European Parliament in particular and the EU in general. In other words, the declining turnout could be explained as a sign that the Central and Eastern Europeans distrust the EU institutions (and the European Parliament in particular) either due to the historic legacies (distrust in political institutions in general), or due to the assumed democratic deficit in the EU as the European Parliament supposedly plays a much too unimportant role. If this hypothesis is true, one might expect that there is a correlation between the turnout level and the trust in the European Parliament.

Partly, this interpretation could draw the support from the Eurobarometer polls that measure the EU citizens’ trust in the European Parliament (see table 3). Indeed, the trust in the European Parliament has somewhat declined among the Central and Eastern Europeans from 53% in 2004 to 50% in 2013. Still, the “old” member states’ citizens now trust the European Parliament even to a lesser extent (42% in 2013) than they did in 2004 (54%), but, despite the dramatic drop in trust in the European Parliament among Western Europeans, they tend to participate in the elections to significantly higher level than the Central and Eastern Europeans who trust the European Parliament to a much higher extent. While the trust in the European Parliament has dropped drastically in Slovenia (from 59% in 2004 to 37% in 2014), a somewhat less dramatic drop has occurred in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. However, the change in the levels of trust is not negative in all of the CEECs. The level of trust has grown in the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Lithuania. In Latvia, the trust in the European Parliament has been stable at 40% over the last ten years.  It seems to me that, with the notable exception of Slovenia, the cause for the sudden drop in the turnout in the CEECs should be sought somewhere else than in trust for the EU institutions.

Table 3: Trust in the European Parliament in 2004 and 2014[9]
Countries Trust Turnout
2004 2013 2004 2014
Czech Republic 44 45 28.3 19.5
Estonia 49 57 26.83 36.4
Hungary 64 58 38.5 28.92
Latvia 40 40 41.34 30.04
Lithuania 52 53 48.38 44.91
Poland 53 51 20.87 22.7
Slovakia 59 56 16.97 13.0
Slovenia 59 37 28.35 20.96
EU-8 53 50 31.19 27.06
EU-15 54 42 52.7 52.43

Having in mind that the turbulent international political context might play a certain role in how the voters decide on their electoral behavior, it is important to examine whether a certain “Maidan effect” has played any role in the lower voter turnout. One could plausibly argue that the countries that are close to Russia (i.e. the Baltic States and Poland) would be tempted to abstain from the European elections because their populations might be dissatisfied with how the EU have managed the crisis in Ukraine. Having in mind that the European Parliament plays a much too unimportant role in the EU foreign policy, the voters should stay at home, according to this line of argument, because the voters did not want to waste their time by electing a parliamentary body that has little to say about the regional security. If this hypothesis is true, one should expect that the country’s closeness to Russia – understood here as country having a border with Russia – correlates with the negative change in turnout rate since 2009.

Table 4: Closeness to Russia and the change in turnout rate
Countries Closeness to Russia Change in turnout rate
Czech Republic Distant Negative
Estonia Close Negative
Hungary Distant Negative
Latvia Close Negative
Lithuania Close Positive
Poland Close Negative
Slovakia Distant Negative
Slovenia Distant Negative

This hypothesis might draw the support from the cases of Poland, Latvia and Estonia which are the countries that have a direct border with Russia and have experienced a decline in the voter turnout since 2009. Still, the case of Lithuania – the country which held the EU Presidency when the Maidan crisis broke out in Kiev in late 2013 – showed that having a direct border with Russia did not need to have a negative effect on the voter turnout. Moreover, this argument does not explain why the CEECs which are relatively distant from Russia (and which, probably, are therefore less worried with the EU’s inability and the European Parliament’s incapacity to manage the Ukraine crisis) display negative changes in the voter turnout. In fact, if the table 3 suggests any foreign-policy based explanation for the low turnout, it could be found in the dissatisfaction with the EU’s response to the Ukraine crisis in general (ignoring how close or distant any particular country is from Russia). Still, those who claim that the Central and Eastern European voters did not show up to cast their vote in the European Parliament to such a great extent because of their dissatisfaction over the EU’s foreign policy still would need to explain the “deviant” case of Lithuania.

Finally, one should look at the performance of economy as a possible explanatory factor influencing the voter turnout in the CEECs. Indeed, the future economic prosperity was probably one of the most important motives behind the Central and Eastern Europeans voting for their country’s membership in the EU. The most usual indicator for comparison of economic prosperity is GDP per capita which I would like to supplement with the indicator of unemployment which can serve as an indicator of a country’s real prosperity and as a proxy measure of the perceived prosperity of a country. I base this choice on assumption that if the citizen has a job, she tends to be more satisfied with her life and might feel empowered also in other aspects of life. Similarly, if the citizen sees that a large proportion of her countrymen have no job, she might consider the overall economic performance as negative. According to this hypothesis, disillusionment with the economic effects of the EU membership may lead to a political apathy or to, at least, a more inwards-oriented view of politics in which the domestic politics play a more important role than that of the emerging European democracy. As the above citation from Graham Greene’s novel vaguely suggests, one might be more inclined to pay more attention to the domestic economic troubles in the times of economic turbulence than in times of economic prosperity.

Table 5: GDP per capita (PPP) and unemployment in the CEECs, 2004-2013
Country GDP per capita, PPP (current international USD)[10] Unemployment rate[11] Voter turnout
2004 2012 2004 2013 2004 2014
Czech Republic 20 092 27 523 8.3 7.0 28.3 19.5 -8.8
Estonia 14 691 24 450 10.1 8.6 26.83 36.4 9.57
Hungary 16 180 22 635 6.1 10.2 38.5 28.92 -9.58
Latvia 11 983 21 810 11.7 11.9 41.34 30.04 -11.3
Lithuania 13 187 24 356 11.6 11.8 48.38 44.91 -3.47
Poland 13 003 22 783 19.1 10.3 20.87 22.7 1.83
Slovakia 14 675 25 842 18.4 14.2 16.97 13.0 -3.97
Slovenia 22 260 28 476 6.3 10.1 28.35 20.96 -7.39

The income indicator (GDP per capita) shows that there has been an increase in economic prosperity in all the CEECs, even if some countries have benefited from their membership in the EU to a greater extent than other CEECs. With the exception of Estonia and Poland, all the countries where the GDP per capita significantly grew over the last ten years experienced also decrease in the voter turnout. Although it is plausible that another, more refined indicator is necessary to measure the growth of income in the CEECs, there appears not to be a direct connection between the income and the voter turnout. After all, most of the CEECs have become more prosperous, but the voter turnout has decreased in all the CEECs, with exception of the two aforementioned countries.

In comparison, the indicator of unemployment seems to be somewhat linked with the voter turnout in more countries. It is best illustrated by Hungary and Slovenia, in both of which the economic crisis have produced a significant increase in unemployment rates (from 6.1% in 2004 to 10.2% in 2013 in Hungary and from 6.3% in 2004 to 10.1% in 2013 in Slovenia). Although unemployment rate in Lithuania has increased from 11.6% to 11.8%, this seems to have had a negative impact on the voter turnout. Latvia which experienced the worst economic growth scenario during the crisis with the GDP dip of almost 20% still has a high unemployment (which is slightly higher than in 2004) also has a negative voter turnout dynamics. Estonia and Poland – where the unemployment rate has decreased since 2004 – have also a positive voter turnout dynamics.

But even the unemployment figures seem not to explain everything. The Czech Republic and Slovakia seems to be the only countries where the unemployment was cut since 2004, but it has had no positive influence on the voter turnout. How to explain these “deviant cases”? One probable explanation might be that these countries (as well as, in fact, in all other CEECs) still have a relatively high unemployment rates in 2013 – 7% in the Czech Republic and 14.2% in Slovakia. Even if the overall economic situation seems better than in 2004, does it matter if the unemployment still is sky-high?

Falling out of love with the EU?

Scrolling through all the three tables with probable explanatory variables, there does not emerge a single explanatory factor that can explain the decline in the voter turnout in the 2014 European elections. This should not come as a great surprise to the more case-oriented political scientists – as Charles Ragin once claimed, monocausal explanations are very rare in the social sciences[12]. It is likely that an exhaustive, even if somewhat pessimistic explanation for why the voter turnout in the European elections has decreased in the CEECs since 2004 may consist of several conditions ranging from (1) disillusionment with the EU as a source for economic prosperity to (2) distrust in the supranational institutions and (3) distrust in their capability to respond to the actual security-policy crisis in the close vicinity of Central and Eastern Europe. To put it simply, it seems that there might be a widening gap between the popular expectations of what the EU should deliver and the actual (or perceived) outcomes that the EU actually produces. It may as well be that Central and Eastern Europeans falls out of love with the EU, provided that there ever was a “love affair” between the “New Europeans” and the EU in the first place.

My take on the dynamics of the voter turnout in the European elections over the last decade is rooted in the belief that ideational factors (such as trust in political institutions) that were not extensively examined in this essay also might play an equally important role as the material factors (such as security and economic welfare). It is not particularly surprising if the voters put less trust in the supranational political institutions in turbulent economic times. The question is what will happen in five years when the effects of the economic crisis will hopefully be swept away. Will the “New Europeans” be more “European” in their political identity and behavior? In other words, will they see themselves as empowered and informed citizens that can deliberate, make rational decisions and participate in the European elections? The present outlook does not offer much hope. If anything, the Central and Eastern European voters seem to be apathetic and disempowered which seems to be a trend that will be difficult to break.

Another ideational factor – which connects with the above citation from Graham Greene’s novel – is the evolving identity of Central and East European citizens of the EU. Throughout the article I have noted several times that the populations in the CEECs have not evolved an identity of being “true” Europeans. Research on the identity of Eastern Europeans shows that their identity is “liminal” – it still lingers in the “no-man’s land” of identifying oneself with belonging to Europe, but being aware of not quite being as European as the West Europeans[13]. While such ideational processes as the changes of identity are more difficult to be measured, it is plausible that the transformations of identity can take much longer time than ten years. Moreover, without further research on this subject, this factor cannot be excluded from the list of factors that may have an important impact on the decision of Central and Eastern Europeans to fully participate in the European democracy.


[1] RFE/RL (2003) “U.S.: Rumsfeld’s ‘Old’ And ‘New’ Europe Touches On Uneasy Divide”, http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1102012.html, accessed on 14 June 2014.

[2] See, for instance, Schimmelfennig, Frank and Ulrich Sedelmeier, eds. (2005) The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[3] In Sweden, only 52.3% of the voters supported the country’s EU membership and 46.8% voted against Sweden joining the EU. The voter turnout was 83.3%. See: Valmyndigheten (2012) “Nationella folkomröstningar”, http://www.val.se/det_svenska_valsystemet/folkomrostningar/nationella/index.html, accessed on 14 June 2014.

[4] The table was compiled based on the data found in the Wikipedia directory on the referenda related to the EU accession (Wikipedia (not dated) “Referendums related to European Union accession”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Referendums_related_to_European_Union_accession, accessed on 16 June 2014).

[5] Hansen, Lene (1996) “Slovenian Identity: State-Building on the Balkan Border”, in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 21(4) – p- 488.

[6] Jubulis, Mark A. (1996) “The External Dimension of Democratization in Latvia: The Impact of European Institutions”, in International Relations, 13(3) – p.61.

[7] European Parliament (2014) “Results of the 2014 European elections”, http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html, accessed on 14 June 2014.

[8] Although see also Persson, Mikael, Sundell, Anders, and Richard Öhrwall (2014) “Does Election Day weather affect voter turnout? Evidence from Swedish elections”, in Electoral Studies, 44(March):335-342.

[9] European Commission (2004) “Eurobarometer Spring 2004, Annexes”, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb61/eb61_anx.pdf, accessed on 15 June 2014; European Commission (2013) ”Standard Eurobarometer 80, Autumn 2013”, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb80/eb80_publ_en.pdf, accessed on 15 June 2014.

[10] The World Bank (not dated) “GDP per capita, PPP (current international $)”, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD, accessed on 15 June 2014.

[11] Eurostat (not dated) ” Unemployment rate by sex and age groups – annual average, %”, http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=une_rt_a&lang=en, accessed on 15 June 2014.

[12] Ragin, Charles (1987) The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkley: University of California Press.

[13] For instance, Mälksoo, Maria (2009) ”From Existential Politics Towards Normal Politics? The Baltic States in the Enlarged Europe”, in Security Dialogue, 39(3) – 275-297.

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