‘The EU elections are the only chance I get to vote’

On the eve of European elections that have failed to inspire much enthusiasm in Spain we asked a group of expats whether they'll be taking time out on Sunday to vote for their representatives in Brussels.

'The EU elections are the only chance I get to vote'
Gibraltar's Prime Minister Fabian Picardo (L) and his wife vote at a polling station in Gibraltar on Thursday. Photo: Marcos Moreno/AFP

The EU elections are almost upon us, and if you're from elsewhere in the EU, you have the right to vote in either Spain or your home country.

To get a feel for how expats in Spain are feeling about the vote we spoke to a mix of EU expats around the country.
Karoline, Seville, from Germany
I would definitely vote but I didn't get the documentation from the town hall here in Seville, and that's despite the fact I am on the municipal register, and have voted in the mayoral elections here previously.
Last year, I made a big fuss about being able to vote in the German general elections by getting in touch with German Embassy in Spain, but this time around I haven't bothered.
Still, I think the elections are very important. The EU is having more and more of an impact on the way we live, and how countries are governed. On top of that, we should participate in the political process and not just complain about things.
Anne, Madrid/Andlusia, from England
I am definitely going to vote in the European elections. I've been living in Spain for 21 years and I've lost my vote in the United Kingdom so this is the only time I can vote, and I want to at least vote somewhere!
I also think the EU elections are important. There's a lot of ignorance about the EU and what it does, but we need to take it seriously if we are going to get the Europe we want. That includes getting out there and voting.
Léa, Madrid, from France
I'm studying abroad here in Spain this year and I really wanted to vote but because of paperwork complications, I haven't managed to enrol in France, which is what I wanted because I wanted to choose a French candidate.
It's a shame because I'm actually really interested in European politics. As an Erasmus student, and as someone who has travelled a lot in the EU, I can see that the European project is very important but that it also has a lot of problems. The main one is a lack of communication about what Europe is. I think that's why you see such big differences in how people in different parts of Europe see the EU. It's also partly why many Spaniards are angry about the EU and a lot of my Spanish friends here won't vote this weekend. 

Joe, from Ireland
For sure I will be voting on Sunday. Irish people living abroad are not allowed to vote in our national parliament or presidential elections. Nothing motivates someone to vote more than not being allowed to vote. So I don't plan to miss the opportunity that I do have!

Marina, Madrid, from Finland
To be honest, I won't be voting because I am heading to Lisbon to watch the (Champions League) football final.
I would have voted — it's an important right we have — but I didn't receive a voting card in the mail before the previous elections, and I haven't followed up on that. I also haven't been very impressed with the information we have received in the mail about the elections; I think the information we get in Sweden is probably better.
Dan, Seville, from Ireland
I haven't managed to register for the European elections this time, but to be perfectly honest I haven't made the effort this time. I suppose it's one of the pitfalls of being an expat: you never know what you are going to do next and where you are going to be, and things like voting slip between the cracks.
At the same time, I actually think it's time I made the effort to become better informed about Europe. The fact is, the life I have was actually made possible by the EU, and by the freedom of movement I've enjoyed — first by doing the Erasmus programme and now by working in Spain.
Obviously Europe is very important in our lives, but I also think the politicians and the schools need to be informing people about why it matters.
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Falling turnout at European elections: the reasons

Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has dropped steadily over the years, hitting a record low of 43 percent at the last poll in 2014. Ahead of the May 23-26 elections for the European Union's assembly, here is an overview.

Falling turnout at European elections: the reasons
Photos: AFP

Staying away 

In 1979, at the first direct election for representatives to the European Parliament, just 38 percent of voters stayed away from the polls.

Since then voter turnout for the five-yearly election has progressively fallen, with a record 57 percent of voters abstaining in 2014.

At the same time, however, the powers of the parliament have increased.

Having had limited scope in 1979, Euro-MPs can now co-legislate in some areas alongside national ministers in the EU Council.

EU distant 

In almost all EU countries more people vote at national general polls than for the European Parliament.

The gap is on average 25 percentage points across the bloc, Sciences Po university professor Olivier Rozenberg told AFP.

EU citizens feel “less close” to the European elections than polls at their national and local levels, the Jacques Delors Institute think-tank said in a 2014 report.

In a September 2018 survey 48 percent of Europeans said they “believe that their voice counts in the EU”, according to the Eurobarometer polling body.

This rose to 62 percent for their own countries, its survey found.

Compulsory vote scrapped 

In 1979 voting was compulsory in three countries — Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg — of the nine that made up the precursor to the European Union, the European Economic Community.

The three accounted for a quarter of the bloc's voters.

That proportion dropped to about five percent as new members joined and Italy dropped the obligation to vote in the 1990s, which “probably played a major role in the decline in overall voting rates at the European elections,” the Jacques Delors Institute said.

In the forthcoming elections, voting will be compulsory in five countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg.

This is not a guarantee of turnout however, as many voters choose to break the law and not cast ballots.

While abstention is weak in Belgium and Luxembourg at between 10 and 15 percent, in Greece it was 40 percent at the 2014 poll, and 56 percent in Cyprus.

Record abstention in east

Slovakia posted the highest abstention rate of 87 percent at the 2014 poll.

Ten of the 12 countries with the lowest turnouts were from the former communist bloc in the east, young countries that are the most recent to join the EU.

Voting in these nations is “a little less sacred” than in other European countries, Rozenberg said.

“For us (western countries) voting is synonymous with democracy, while this link is less clear in Eastern countries where there are still memories of non-pluralist elections,” he said.

Politics in eastern countries is also more fluid, with parties regularly changing names and alliances.

“That does not favour partisan identity and therefore the vote,” Rozenberg said.

Founding countries not spared 

With the exception of Belgium and Luxembourg, the EU's founding members have also seen higher numbers of voters snubbing the European Parliament polls.

In France and The Netherlands, abstention reached around 60 percent in 2014, from 40 percent in 1979.

In Italy it was at 43 percent from 14 percent over the same period, and in

Germany it was at 50 percent from 34 percent.

The stayaway rates have nonetheless stabilised since 2004 in France and Germany.

This can be explained by an awareness among people “that the European Union is part of the problem and perhaps of the solution” of the various challenges facing Europe, Rozenberg said.