European Elections: Swing to apathy in every part of Europe

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The Independent Online
EVEN BEFORE the votes had been counted, the inquest started. Across Europe the verdict was clear: the campaign to join the European Union's only directly elected institution failed to capture the imagination of the voters.

In Britain only 23 per cent of the public bothered to turn out and in the Netherlands exit polls pointed to a record low of 30 per cent of eligible voters. Even in Denmark, where about half the eligible population made it to the polling booths, the figure is expected to be down on the last Euro-elections in 1994.

Turn-out has varied widely, with voting compulsory in some countries such as Belgium, but across the continent the campaigns have made little impact. Even in Italy, where the battle featured political heavyweights and well-known personalities, including the postwar movie star and sex symbol Gina Lollobrigida, the voters have hardly been stirred.

The tone was summed up in the apparent desperation of one former Miss Belgium, Anke Vandermeesch, who promised to pose naked in Playboy magazine if she was elected in yesterday's poll.

For a parliament that recently proved its power by forcing the resignation of the European Commission, and gains new responsibilities under the Amsterdam Treaty, it is a bitter blow.

As one British campaigner put it, reflecting on a turn-out of historically low proportions: "It is almost a rejection of the democratic process. It is very dispiriting."

So why has the election failed so badly? One reason is timing. With the Balkans dominating the news, the European elections have barely had a look in. Kosovo has been the subject of pronouncements of politicians and therefore the television bulletins and the newspaper front pages.

In Britain the Labour Party argues that the turn-out has fallen from 1994 because there is no wish among the public to deliver a strong vote against the government of the day, as there was when John Major was in Number 10. But even then, only 36 per cent bothered to vote.

Other factors, clearly, are at play. In many countries, those who stand for election tend to be seen as second-tier politicians, and the parliament has consistently failed to attract enough national heavyweights.

The political groupings in the parliament, the ramshackle alliances of socialists and Christian Democrats bear little relationship to national political divides. Among British MEPs, for example, policy differences between Tory and Labour parliamentarians on many issues have tended to be slight.

Their powers are little understood and, while the European Parliament's role as a decision-maker and shaper of legislation grows, the public remains unmoved. The parliament's highly complex procedures are conducted in 11 official languages at two different buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg. Debates and votes take place on different days and so byzantine is the procedure that it has even confused the political parties (the Conservatives once backed the wrong resolution in error).

Few voters know enough to distinguish between the constituent parts of the EU: the council of ministers, the Commission and the parliament. Thus parliamentarians' focus on sleaze and cronyism in the Commission this year may have served only to highlight the shortcomings of the entire system and fuel cynicism among the voters.

Nor did it help that the MEPs failed to clear up their own expenses regime on the eve of the poll.

As one Labour campaigner put it: "It is leading us to think that we have to make the parliament more relevant and more important to ordinary people.

"We need to start talking about real reform. That is essential to determine whether the parliament becomes credible."

If nothing else the campaign has highlighted the central paradox at the root of Europe's political project: the louder the calls for democratic accountability in the EU, the less interest the public seems to show.