The Right to Vote in Europe

Any change in voting procedures and voter behaviour will affect democratic legitimacy of the EU. Changes to its structure need to be made to enhance voter turnout. By Liam Fitzgerald.

Recently, Milan Vaishnav, associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, argued for ‘more bureaucrats, institutions, and voting’ in India to strengthen the world’s largest democracy.1 While this author does not endorse more bureaucrats and institutions for Europe, he does believe voting to be essential for the Union’s – indeed any polities’ – democratic future. Why? What does more voting, a larger voter turnout involve?

The right to vote is surely amongst the most important rights of every citizen in every democratically structured entity. The act of casting one’s vote is the easiest and most direct way to express firmly held views, to influence politics, to force decisions, and to uphold a functioning democracy. In turn, voting involves a great deal of responsibility each individual holds in a democratically organized community. The rights a citizen has cannot be viewed without these responsibilities. Whoever has the right to style himself citizen must at the same time acknowledge that there is a price to pay.

Citizens can either vote or abstain from voting. Both alternatives carry with them certain implications. Someone casting his vote actively legitimises every government or parliamentary composition resulting from the election in question. By casting his vote, the citizen acknowledges the political system and transfers powers to others who represent him, no matter if those eventually entering office are exactly those he voted for or not. This is a process of active democratic legitimation through participating in the process of voting – is is the central element of every democracy. Those who do not cast their vote nonetheless have a part to play in the outcome of any election. Implicitly, they acknowledge whatever result comes about. However, they do not do anything to lend legitimacy to a resulting parliament or government. To the contrary, the less people vote, the less any resulting body can claim thorough legitimacy. What happens is that by not voting every single vote of those who did express their opinion counts more while simultaneously reducing the amount of people in reality represented – thus reducing democratic legitimation. In extreme situations, lack of participation in elections can result in failing democracies. At the very least it raises questions on how and if a democracy is able to function when widespread disinterest in politics sets in. Of course, disinterestedness is a result of bad politics, corruption, and other associated miseries in any structure.

Original caption of German Bundesarchiv remains visible.

German citizen casting his vote for general elections 1987.

But in times of crisis as we are experiencing it should be self-evident that interest has grown. At the same time, citizens are disillusioned by day-to-day politics and the lack of vision and democratic processes. Now it is high time for citizens to use the powers they have or else to simply accept what is decided. Admittedly, especially on the European level, possibilities are fairly poor. But they do exist. People have the means to participate but if they do not, they risk their representatives’ leverage over decisions and their own at one stroke.

However, where is the significance of this for the project of Europe? There are two points to note. One concerns Europe’s current structure, the other what a new Union should look like.

Federalization and Voter Turnout

As for the first: A larger body of citizens actually using their right to vote automatically means a far larger amount of democratic legitimation for the European Parliament. Especially when considering how the Union is criticised – rightly so – for its democratic deficit a larger voter turnout can serve to give the Parliament more self-esteem and a legitimately louder voice among the Union’s institutions. Members could point to the fact that they alone are elected by popular, ideally overwhelmingly broad, vote and therefore are the true representatives of European citizens. Within a structure of institutions lacking legitimation by those governed such a Parliament gains political weight. The democratic deficit could therefore indeed be diminished if Europe’s citizens decided to go vote. Nevertheless, this is no cure but merely a better treatment of existing symptoms. Even though a larger turnout would give Parliament more leverage over the Commission and Council, this is only possible within the constitutional framework of the Union and would not in itself entail a decisive shift of power in the Union. But it would be step in the right direction. All that needs to be done is to get Europeans to vote for their representatives – a very difficult task but one that could be tackled by Parliamentarians themselves.

The second point refers to an all-out reform of the Union through the creation of an entirely new framework. What should be called the Democratic Union not only involves a Constitutional Convention created by popular ballot and a vote on the agreed upon constitutional document throughout participating political entities – regions or nations. This in itself would ensure democratic legitimacy from the outset. It also entails a stronger Parliament with enhanced legislative powers and competences in comparison to Europe’s existing Parliament, and because of this also more appeal to the voter to cast his vote in determining who should represent him. More powers to determine Union policy means more interest of the populace in who does so and in turn in influencing who these people are. This is the only way to create a truly democratic Union.

A strong Democracy needs a strong Parliament

A process of democratically establishing a new Union involving a strong Parliament from the outset sets a precedence of democratic legitimation. This process is strengthened and perpetuated by establishing a strong Parliament. Democracy is thus the beginning of a new Democratic Union and the stuff that keeps it going.

If we, the citizens of the Union, feel we have the power to say something in the Union’s institutions, if we are given the power to express what we believe to be politically right or necessary, then we will be motivated to do so – be it in existing structures or new ones. Politicians should recognise this fact. They should give the citizens this power by creating a strong legislative body able to determine policy and by doing so creating a strong incentive to vote. So, no matter what the context, what goes for India, goes for Europe, though surely not for the same reasons: More democracy through vesting more powers in legislative bodies and in turn creating broader interest of the populace in their representatives – no doubt this in itself can immeasurably strengthen the Union.

In concluding, what the Union sorely needs is broader participation of its citizens. It can be done in the existing Union, either by first strengthening Parliament’s role to attract more attention to a more powerful body. Or it can be done by creating a new Democratic Union that from its very beginning incorporates a far larger proportion of for whom and through whose vote it was created in the first place. Both alternatives will result in a more powerful Union, though no doubt only the second approach will comprehensively solve the European Union’s democratic deficit.

Image courtesy of Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F074392-0012 / Munker, Georg / CC-BY-SA, released under creative commons attribution-share alike 3.0 Germany.

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  1. Milan Vaishnav, ‘India Needs More Democracy, Not Less’, Foreign Affairs 11.04.2013, URL:, viewed 14.04.2013.