This is a post by Jonas Tallberg. The text was originally published in the edited volume Euroflections. Leading academics on the European elections 2019, a free downloadable report with results, analyses and reflections on the election to the European Parliament 2019. More than 70 researchers from all over Europe participate in the project led by the editors Niklas Bolin, Kajsa Falasca, Marie Grusell and Lars Nord. Download the report and read more about the project here.

The dominant narrative coming into the European elections of 2019 was the rise of anti-EU sentiment across Europe. Media reports focused on the growing strength of EU-skeptic populist parties on the far-right, while academic analyses spoke of growing politicization and contestation of the EU. Coming on the back of Brexit, challenges to the EU’s authority by Hungary and Poland, and the election of a nationalist government in traditionally EU positive Italy, surely these European elections epitomized a crisis of legitimacy for the Union?

Think again. Contrary to the conventional narrative, there is much to suggest that these European elections presented an indication of strength for the legitimacy of the EU. In this context, legitimacy refers to the extent to which people regard the authority of a political institution as appropriate, as indicated by their attitudes toward, engagement with, and acceptance of this institution. Importantly, it is not about what parties people vote for or whether they appreciate all policies coming out of the institution. It is about their faith in the political institution as such.

In this respect, three features of the European elections 2019 indicate stronger rather than weaker legitimacy for the EU.

First, these elections brought about a dramatic shift in voter turnout. While average EU voter turnout has been in steady decline since the first election to the European Parliament in 1979, reinforced by the accession of less voting-prone countries in Central and Eastern Europe in the 2000s, it now rose from 42.6 percent in 2014 to 51.0 percent. This is the highest turnout since the elections in 1994, and surpasses turnout in US congressional elections, but is still significantly lower than in most European national elections. Interestingly, the European elections this year registered record turnout in several countries whose governments have made a point of contesting core EU values and policies, notably, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

Second, the elections signaled greater acceptance of the European Parliament as an institution, and of the EU as a political system, even among EU-skeptic parties. Whereas mainstream parties always have accepted this arena, 2019 was the year when EU-skeptic parties, too, moved in this direction. While campaigning on an agenda of national control and seeking a unified EU-critical front, these parties tend not to advocate leaving the Union (anymore). Consider Lega in Italy, PiS in Poland, National Rally in France, and AfD in Germany. In my own country, Sweden, the two parties previously opposed to EU membership – the Sweden Democrats on the far-right and the Left Party on the far-left – both shifted to a position of engagement prior to the elections. Rather than contesting the EU as a construction, EU-skeptic parties now compete for power in its parliament as a way of changing its policies in their preferred direction. While many of us might not like their message, the shift in approach of these parties signals a step toward greater acceptance of the EU as a political arena.

Third, these elections took place against a background of rising trust in the EU among its citizens. Trust or confidence is a common indicator when researchers measure the perceived legitimacy of a political institution among people. The average level of trust in the EU has fluctuated somewhat over the past two decades, often tracking developments in public opinion toward domestic political institutions. While trust in the EU declined in the wake of the Euro-crisis, it has since regained ground. According to the latest Eurobarometer poll, 42 percent of citizens have trust in the EU. Interestingly, this is seven percentage points higher than citizens’ average trust in their national governments and parliaments – a pattern that has held steady throughout the 2000s. If there is a legitimacy crisis for political institutions, it is one that afflicts the national level to a greater extent than the European.

These good news for the legitimacy of the EU fit into a broader neglected pattern in world politics. At a time when political pundits focus narrowly on anti-globalist populism in the wake of momentous events such as Brexit and Trump, the full data suggest a different and more positive picture about international cooperation. The popular legitimacy of global governance appears stable, significantly more states join than leave international institutions, and liberal norms are surprisingly well respected world-wide. This does not mean that everything is hunky dory in international cooperation. Cooperation could have been more ambitious, less cumbersome, and better implemented. In addition, confidence in international institutions remains higher among elites than citizens at large, as we show in a new study from our research program. But it does mean that the conventional narrative of a legitimacy crisis in Europe and global governance broadly is increasingly off target.


Jonas Tallberg

Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University and Principal Investigator of the “Legitimacy in Global Governance” Research Program (LegGov)