The extreme choices before Europe drew the biggest voter turnout in 20 years

Keeping the faith—in the EU.
Keeping the faith—in the EU.
Image: Reuters/Susana Vera
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Votes are still being counted in the European Parliament elections, which wrapped up on Sunday, but one thing is certain: Faith in democracy isn’t dead yet.

The elections gave Brits (and everyone else) a chance to express their views on the UK’s decision to leave the bloc. They provided an opportunity for smaller parties to make headway with voters disillusioned by mainstream politics. And they offered hundreds of millions of people the opportunity to express the direction they would like the bloc to go in: towards the inward-looking ideologies of populism and Euroskepticism, or the outward-looking politics of pro-European integration.

These factors pushed voters to turn up. The election attracted its highest voter turnout in two decades—50.5%—a sign that political apathy about the EU’s future hasn’t become the prevailing force amongst the bloc’s citizens yet.

The number of eligible voters taking part in previous elections had been on the decline. Just 43% voted in the last election in 2014, down from a high of 63% in 1979. There are many reasons for this, including low levels of interest for EU machinations in general, compared with national politics. As an institution, the EU can often feel “remote and inhuman” to voters, as James Traub writes in Foreign Policy.

But since the last elections, the bloc has been roiled by Brexit, a migrant crisis, climate change protests, and fears over how much anti-EU sentiment could undermine all that the EU has achieved since its founding. Voters took note.

In the months before the election, support for EU membership amongst the bloc’s 28 member states skyrocketed. A survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) showed that more than half of Europeans were worried the EU could collapse in the next 10 to 20 years, while 28% of EU voters said they believed that war between EU member states would be possible.

These concerns provided an opportunity for pro-Europeans. “Fear is a strong motivator,” ECFR wrote. “Populists have been successful in leveraging voters’ fears—of immigrants, of change, of the other—into votes. Now it’s time for pro-Europeans to leverage a continent’s anxiety and come up with convincing solutions.”

The rise in voter turnout could also be a sign that the EU’s campaign to appeal to voters paid off. In the run-up to the start of elections on May 23, the European Parliament ran an organized effort to promote the elections. A network of thousands of campaigners held more than 2,000 events across Europe, with a social media campaign called “Choose Your Future.” Other EU institutions appealed to voters through evocative posters and slogans.

The election’s preliminary results are by no means a resounding victory for pro-European sentiment. While pro-EU parties in a coalition are likely to hold on to their majority in the EU Parliament, wins by nationalist parties underscore the split in voters over the EU’s future. But at the very least, high voter turnout signaled that the bloc’s citizens are invested in giving the institution a chance to course correct—a chance it might not get again.