Citizens’ support for the European Union and participation in European Parliament elections

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Series Details Vol.13, No.1, March 2012, p26-46
Publication Date March 2012
ISSN 1465-1165
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The dominant paradigm characterizes European Parliament (EP) elections as second-order national elections. Scholars adhering to this view (for example, Marsh, 2008; Reif and Schmitt, 1980; Schmitt, 2005) not only identify these elections as less important, but also emphasize that low turnout in EP elections is unrelated to citizens’ support for the European Union (EU).

In this article, I challenge this latter proposition. Analyzing all EP elections since 1979, I first find that higher macro-level support for EU membership leads to higher turnout. Second, I discover that changes in aggregate EU support directly trigger changes in turnout rates.

Third, a multilevel analysis of Eurobarometer data confirms these macro-level trends at the micro level and finds that citizens who consider their country's membership in the EU ‘a good thing’ have a higher likelihood of voting in EP elections than those who reject it. These findings have both empirical and theoretical implications.

Empirically, the low turnout in EU elections is directly linked to citizens’ rejection of the EU project. Theoretically, the second-order national election thesis needs to be altered. Turnout in EP elections is driven by not only national-level factors but also citizens’ satisfaction with the EU.

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