Apathy or Commitment? Analysing Expat Voting Preferences in the 2019 European Parliament Elections

European Parliament elections are frequently a bellwether for the various slings and arrows that the EU itself is facing during election year. Turnout various from state to state, national and transnational groups attempt to produce slick messaging regarding their vision for the EU, against a wider backdrop of both new mandates and personnel turnover in the upper echelons of all the EU institutions. Given the geopolitical and economic turmoil the EU saw between 2014-2020, it was interesting that EE19 saw a turnout of 50.6%, the highest participation rate in the past two decades. Within this increase in turnout, the role of expats – something of a neglected demography within the study of voting trends – reveals interesting attitudes towards both the EU and the home-host country differential.

To get the measure of this range of factors, the European Parliament recently published a report surveying the attitudes of European expatriates to the 23-26 May 2019 European Parliament elections (EP 2020).[1] Delving into its results, three findings stood out starkly. First, the difference in expats attitudes between their country of nationality, and country of residence in terms of willingness to vote or abstain. Second, the impact of Brexit on expats’ overall decision to participate in the EE19. Third, the role that trust in both the EU, and the EP played in incentivising expat attitudes. What makes expat attitudes so interesting is not just the sheer range of differential attitudes encompassed within the expat community, but the incentives (e.g. trust in the EU) and disincentives (e.g. barriers to voting).

Compiled between 12 June-2 July on the basis of 8.617 EU expatriates “drawn from some of the largest expatriate communities in the EU28 countries”, and divided into 46 sub-groups and twelve nationalities on behalf of the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit of the EP, the report produced a range of findings (EP 2020, 7), three of which are briefly explored here. The starkest difference is perhaps between the abysmal results of 2014 in which 95% of expats failed to vote in in EE14 in their country of residence (i.e. host country), and the far higher turnout witnessed in 2020 in which consistently more expats voted in their host country.

  1. Home vs Host Attitudes

In terms of expat voting behaviour, “under half of the sample interviewed” for the 2019 survey had voted in EE19. The EP2020 report suggests that “official data available for each country indicate[s] that expatriate turnout for the EE19 was generally higher than for the preceding European election” in 2014, but that taken against the increased overall official EE19 turnout, expats still appeared fundamentally “less likely to vote in these elections than the EU28 population as a whole” (EP 2020, 9). Trends within the expat voting behaviour can be further divided into age, education, rural vs urban residence, and most interestingly, the length of time they have been resident in their host country in determining both their likelihood of voting, and their choice of EP party (i.e. host or home country).

The mean results here for expat voting behaviour were as follows: Age: 25-54; Education: highly educated (managers vs manual workers or unemployed); Rural vs. Urban residence: urban areas, the premise here being that urban areas provide a higher number of polling stations “set up by the government of their country of nationality” whereas rural-based expats or smaller towns expressed difficulties in voting from abroad (EP 2020, 9). In terms of the duration of residence, long-term residents in the host country voted in greater numbers, with their preferred choice of EP party: generally more likely to support political parties from their own country of nationality (53%) rather than for parties representing their country of residence (46%). Some care has to be taken with this figure however; as the study points out:

Shorter-term expats tend to give their vote in greater numbers to parties from their country of nationality, while expatriates with a longer time of residence give their vote more often to parties from their country of residence.” (EP 2020, 10).

Again, care has to be taken not to treat the expat demographic in too homogenous a fashion. This community differs in age, skills, education and duration of residence as well as attitude to both their home and host countries. It is therefore interesting that – given such caveats – the EP2020 survey data suggests that the voting preferences of expat communities are causally rather than constitutively affected by the duration of their residence in their host country. As such, expats residing in a new home country for fewer than two years were 36% likely to vote, those resident for three to five years were 40% likely to vote, and those resident for more than eleven years were 55% (EP 2020, 12). A degree of social and consequently political acclimatisation can therefore be said to occur, underwriting the instinct to vote, increased knowledge of how to vote, and clearer preference of which MEP or party to vote for.

  • Are expats apathetic to Brexit?

The 2016 UK vote to leave the European Union led to high levels of polarisation, divided families, and split political parties, as well as driving higher levels of electoral turnout, especially among younger cohorts, who felt they had a genuine reason to vote, either to “stop Brexit” or to “get Brexit done”. Equally, Brexit and its consequences failed to galvanise all groups in the EP 2020 elections, most notably the expat community. As explained above, despite an increased turnout compared to the previous two decades, few expats (with the possible exception of UK expats themselves) declared Brexit as a motivating factor to the subsequent EP2019 survey.

Given the wide coverage of Brexit across EU Member States from 2016 onwards, as well as the rancorous EU-UK negotiations throughout 2018-19, and the increasingly clear consequences for both the UK and the EU in terms of vastly changed political realities, the ‘Brexit variable’ could arguably have played a significant role in expat voter motivations, both in terms of party choice, OR to abstain. Even specific consequences like heightened awareness of the four freedoms (including free movement of people) for either UK and non-UK expats could be assumed to have mobilised expatriates to vote in greater numbers, either to support the philosophy of the EU via pro-EU parties or to join the ranks of anti-integrationist parties on the populist spectrum. In contrast, as shown in Table 1, the vast majority of expat citizens appeared largely indifferent – almost apathetic – to the issue of Brexit as a voting factor.

A closer examination of the results however shows up underlying attitudes. Chronologically for example, the survey illustrates a clear divide between “newer” and “older” member states, with citizens of founding members such as Germany and France confirming that Brexit did indeed have some bearing on their decision to vote, while citizens of states that acceded in 2004 and 2007 (Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania) confirming that Brexit had little or no impact. Echoing the findings above, the duration of expat residence combined with the duration of EU membership of the host state itself provided interesting outcomes. Citizens of Spain and the Netherlands (older member states) residing in the UK were divided in their responses; Dutch nationals resident in the UK for fewer than 5 years participated only in Dutch elections (rather than Europe-wide elections), while longer-term expats participated in both British and European elections. A similar observation can be made regarding Spanish expatriates, though in this case the vast majority participated in UK elections independently of their years of residence.

Table 1: Attitudes towards Brexit among expats living in the UK

Country of origin: Bulgaria Germany Spain France Hungary Italy Netherlands Poland Portugal Romania
Yes, definitely 19,2 48,6 31,6 51,8 21,1 19 41,3 25,6 38,2 21,4
Yes, to some extent 13,9 10,7 13 15,2 6 3,8 14 11,3 20,8 19,9
No, not really 31,2 16,4 33,8 12,8 38,1 15,1 35,2 18,5 16,7 17,3
No, not at all 35,8 24,3 21,6 20,3 34,8 62 9,6 44,5 24,3 41,4

Source: Eurobarometer, expat survey 2019

  • Trust: motivator or dissuader? 

The final factors examined in the EP2020 report are perhaps confirmatory of overarching trends in European electoral analysis. In terms of their general attitudes, expats who participated in the EP2019 survey confirmed first that they held more pro-European views in terms of trusting both the EU and the European Parliament than those of the wider EU-28 population (just over 50% to 44%). Second, polled expats confirmed “that the most common reason for voting in the EE19 was the feeling of being European, or of being an EU citizen” by allowing them say in how ‘the EU should work in the future”. Lastly, expats further stated that the practice of voting allowed them to “express[] their disapproval of the government” of either their home or host state (EP 2020, 10). Digging a little deeper, one source of trust in the EU overall appears to rest in attitudes regarding the positive or negative impact that EU membership has had on both the home, and host state of expatriates. To this can be added other factors like education, duration of residence in a given member state in terms of likelihood to vote as a driver to expressing pro or anti-European attitudes.

Two interesting sub-themes are on offer here. While the survey suggests that polled expatriates self-identified as Europhile, expats themselves “do not tend to believe more than the population as a whole that their country of origin has benefited from its membership of the EU” (with the notable expectation of Polish, German and Hungarian expats). Further, instead expats more frequently regarded their country of residence as having more greatly benefited from EU membership (75%) than their country of nationality (64%) (EP 2020, 30). Expats residents in Ireland, Germany and Spain for instance are more strongly motivated to regard EU membership as beneficial for those three members states (90%, 82%, 78%) while residents in Greece (60%) and Belgium (66%) are less convinced. These findings can be refined further against the variables of age, education and employment. Trust among polled expats in the European Parliament (47%) lagged slightly behind the EU itself (50%), and again higher than that attitudes to the EP among the general EU population.

In absolute terms, neither of the expat ‘trust percentages’ are particularly convincing in terms of reliable support for either the EU project or the EP as an institution.  Placed within a ‘trust spectrum’ however, these figures represent the upper end of expat attitudes confirming their trust in the EU and the EP, where levels of trust in the government of their country of residence is observably lower at 44% and in the government of their country of nationality at just 21% Expat trust in their residence governments range from states that far outrank trust in the EU and the EP: Luxembourg (70%), Austria (59%), Germany (55%) and the Netherlands (51%0 to those that fall well below, including the UK (26%), Greece (36%) and Belgium (33%) (EP 2020, 34). Expat trust in nationality governments is divided between Germany at the upper end (40%) and a range of rock-bottom figures from Croatia (10%), Bulgaria (13%), Greece (13%) and Romania (17%) among others. (EP 2020, 33).


Analysing the vote of expatriates is a new field of research in electoral behaviour. For expatriates the European elections are one of the few opportunities to affect national politics in their country of residence, but still the vast majority appear largely indifferent to political developments in their new country. A more detailed analysis of the results once publicly released will help us answer a series of research questions related to voting behaviour of the most understudied group of voters – citizens living abroad.

[1] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/at-your-service/files/be-heard/eurobarometer/2019/2019_post-electoral_survey_among_european_expatriates/en-post-election-expats-2019-report.pdf