The European Parliament elections held between 23-25 May 2014 were the third for the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries since they joined the EU. The economic crisis and growing euroscepticism in many countries in which elections were held tested the confidence of individual governments and Europe alike. Characteristically for the region, the European Parliamentary elections have traditionally attracted a low voter turnout, which has been in steady decline for 10 years.
That the newest EU members show the least interest in determining the composition of the legislative body of the EU can already be taken as a rule. Thus, in the last three Euro parliamentary elections the Czech Republic systematically reduced its participation from 28.3% in 2004 to 28.2% in 2009 and 18.2% in 2014. Slovakia’s participation during the same period was marked by even lower rates: 16.9%, 19.6% and 13.0%. Polish statistics were slightly better: 20.8%, 24.5% and 23.3%. The exception is only Hungary, where participation systematically increased from 38.5% to 36.3% to 51.5%. If those figures are compared with comparable statistics in, say, Austria (42.4%, 45.9% and 67.7%), it becomes clear that voter activity in CEE countries is much lower than in the old EU member states: at the last election voter turnout in Europe averaged at 43%.
What are the reasons for this phenomenon? CEE countries are much less developed than Western Europe. With the exception of Poland and Slovakia, they have not managed to recover from the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and their social growth compares with statistical error (0.2-0.7%). If optimism prevailed in CEE countries in the first years after their accession to the EU, today growing pessimism gives rise to a lack of interest in participating in Euro parliamentary elections. Actively implemented austerity measures in all CEE countries, together with the cost and inefficiency of European bureaucracy, significantly increase the number of Eurosceptics. In this region, a policy aimed at economic growth, competitiveness and job creation would have been welcomed unequivocally. However, this does not happen, and for CEE countries EU membership often means the destruction of their economic capacity and rising unemployment amid increasing labor migration abroad. The leveling economic development CEE countries were promised on accession goes by the wayside. Countries happily counting the funds received from various European funds wring their hands upon realising the amounts transferred to them from the EU budget are smaller than those previously received from Europe and draw conclusions about the profitability of their EU membership on this basis.
The results of the recent elections promoted caused concern among CEE country leaders disturbed by the Euroscepticism of their populations. Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on 27 May 2014, Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia remarked ironically that the European Parliament elections have no great significance for the Slovak population, which is more concerned by the growth of nationalist sentiment and increasing disintegration trends in developed European countries.
As if echoing him, Czech President Zeman joked that although voter turnout in his country fell below the European average, the best results were achieved by parties with a pro-European orientation, outperformed France or Britain, where many voted but the future of European integration was put into question.
Even 10 years after joining the EU the social structure of CEE countries has not become more homogeneous. Substantial differences remain and the electoral preferences of the population often change. In Hungary candidates from the ruling party Fidesz secured more than 51% of votes in May 2014, with candidates from extremist party Jobbik taking second place (14.68%) ahead of the Social Democrats. In the Czech Republic the various political parties which President Zeman called pro-European could not even secure 50%. In Slovakia, pro-Europe candidates garnered 24%. The question arises: can you be pro-Europe and not love the EU? This is the question which not only CEE countries, but Europe as a whole, must answer.
In the circumstances, CEE analysts critical of the EU predict growing euroscepticism in their countries and a further decrease in voter participation. The recent “Eurobarometer” survey shows that more than half of respondents believe that life in the EU will only worsen.